Hanni vs. Goode on Sweet Wine Preferences

jam jarThe wine world hasn’t had a good dust up in awhile. Perhaps this debate between Tim Hanni (MW) and Jamie Goode will get the intellectual juices flowing.

Hanni argues that there is a significant portion of the public who are genetically programmed to prefer sweet wines, and this segment is not being served by wine experts who control the aesthetic discourse about wine and generally prefer dry wines. Here is a recent interview and there is much more information at his website.

Jamie Goode, wine writer and science journalist, thinks Hanni does not take into consideration how malleable and adaptable our tastes are and doubts that our preferences are being determined by wine experts:

The fact that most wines are dry, more-or-less, is because this is what the market wants. The market for mid-price to expensive wines with significant residual sugar is precisely zero. People who pay a bit more for wine want their wines dry. The market for fully sweet wines is also tiny: this is why Sauternes is having such a hard time and so many producers are struggling, while the market for high-end dry Bordeaux wines is surging.

No doubt sales of sweeter wines at the lower end of the market have been surging in recent years as evidenced by the success of Moscato and sweet red blends such as Apothic. But the larger question is why those of us concerned about wine as an aesthetic object should care about the preferences of casual wine drinkers who buy commodity wines.

I haven’t had time to look deeply at Hanni’s work and part of his thesis depends on the difficult question of innate preferences on which the science is not yet settled. But I’m not at all persuaded that adding sugar to most wines will improve their aesthetic qualities, although many of the high-acid non-vinifera wines need sugar to bring them into balance.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this when I’ve had a chance to soak in the literature a bit more.


  1. Love to chat about this any time – let me know if you would like to set up a call! Especially the part: “But the larger question is why those of us concerned about wine as an aesthetic object should care about the preferences of casual wine drinkers who buy commodity wines” Sweet wine lovers comprise a huge and diverse opportunity that is not being positively marketed to…and consider the #1 selling wine in Mondavi tasting room is the 80 g/L Moscato d’Oro, at $30/375 ml a bottle ($60 750 equivalent). Not a dry wine, and indicative of and even bigger opportunity at hand.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your comment. No doubt there is a market for premium sweet wines–Port, Sauternes, etc. some of which are made from grapes from the Muscat family. As I read Jamie’s post he wasn’t disputing that. But that market is small and has been for some time, in part because those wines are quite expensive. Perhaps the success of Moscato d’Oro is an indicator that there is untapped interest in them. If so I don’t see why winemakers would be reluctant to satisfy the demand.

    I’m puzzled by your claim that the sweet wine market is not being served. I travel throughout the country visiting tasting rooms and, with the exception of wineries on the West coast, they all have extensive flights of off-dry, semi-sweet and sweet wines, some of which are their best sellers.. This is especially true of cooler regions that need sugar to balance high acidity. Your assertion seems more appropriate to California, Oregon and Washington but presumably that is because drier styles are what their customers want.

    I was posing a somewhat different question in the post. The recent interest in sweeter wines seems to be at the lower end of the market where consumers want something rich and smooth, and especially in red blends where varietal character doesn’t matter. For consumers who want more nuance it isn’t obvious that simply adding sugar is going to provide it. In fact that added weight and prominent sweetness can cover up nuance as well as disguise flaws. As you know, dumping sugar in the fermentation tank does not a good spatlese make. One of the reasons many people are put off by sweet wines is the bad experience they have had with poorly made Riesling from the bad old days. From an aesthetic point of view it isn’t obvious what is gained by promoting sweetness in wine more generally given that we have lots of wonderful sweet wines on the market today.

    I say this as someone who loves sweet wine. A good Sauterne or Beaumes de Venise is heavenly. But I’m not sure I want more sugar in my Pinot.

    You may be right that there is a portion of the public who are biologically averse to bitter and sour tastes and cannot modify that aversion through experience. As I noted in the post, I haven’t looked at the science on this very deeply. I tend to doubt it because most of the science on human behavior shows a complex interaction between biological and cultural factors; and your view seems to presuppose some version of biological reductionism. But perhaps the science of taste is moving in a different direction. I just don’t know.

    I hope to see you at the Postmodern Winemaking Symposium this year.

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