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Value Vino

Talking dry, drinking sweet

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Here’s a conundrum (or maybe merely a dilemma): Many folks, perhaps in an attempt to appear sophisticated, claim to like only “dry” wines, clandestinely slugging sweet in secret. Some, taking the notion that sweet wines are for sissies and schlubs to the extreme, would disdain even a spectacular Sauternes, one of the world’s truly great (and most expensive) wines.

Conversely, there are tipplers that stick to sweet wines alone (those irrepressible Aussies call these wines “stickies”) and can’t be unstuck, no matter what. Cut it out, all of you. There’s a time and a place for the sweet and the dry. A personal confession: Whereas I am perfectly happy to drink sweet white wines with (or as) dessert — especially if a few bubbles are added — I have serious trouble with sweet red wines. This column, then, started as a personal challenge to find one that doesn’t use sugar to cover up for sloppy winemaking. And I did.

There are others to be had (the charming Rosa Regale semi-dry red sparkler from Italy comes to mind), but Jam Jar proclaims it right on the label: Sweet Shiraz. No dancing around semi-dry or semi-sweet — just sweet. (Just so you know, I bought this at Central Market where I could sneak out with it without having to endure quizzical looks from vendors.) This time it’s those equally irrepressible South Africans that are responsible for this sacrilege — and they have the nerve to say right on the back label that the 2010 Jam Jar is “packed with juicy berry flavors and hints of dark chocolate.” But let’s start with the nose; it doesn’t betray any sweetness at all.

In fact, it’s much like any full-bodied shiraz/syrah: slightly smoky, leathery, full of dark fruit, and just a little, well, jammy. The back label suggests serving chilled, a good idea, which keeps this nose from getting out of hand, and the slight chill also keeps the same flavors balanced with the wine’s entirely adequate acidity. Yes, it is noticeably — but not at all cloyingly — sweet; I wouldn’t sit around sipping it. But I can see it with barbecue with a sweetish sauce, duck with plum, even a burger with ketchup. I was fresh out of chocolate, so didn’t try that, but can imagine the wine with, say, blueberry pie as well, making it unusually flexible. And it was on sale for $7.98.

As implied above, it’s easier to find good, even great, sweet white wines. And, yes, the good ones are usually more expensive than eight bucks. But in the interest of fairness, here’s one for your consideration — the 2008 Hogue Riesling Columbia Valley (about $9.50 on Saturday sale at Saglimbeni’s). Washington State offers some exceptional Rieslings at fair prices (Kung Fu Girl, for example), and Hogue Cellars is one of the most consistent suppliers. “Subtly sweet” proclaims the back label, and (again) the nose doesn’t betray it: Smoke, mineral, and light floral is what I got.

On the palate, just as the label suggests, there is apricot and peach, and the sweetness is buoyed by a great acidic backbone. I actually liked sipping this one quite cold, but could equally imagine it with shrimp with a little spice (or almost anything spicy but not too heavy, for that matter), pork with an apricot glaze, and — if not too saccharin in its own right — that Texas classic, peach cobbler. All of which leads us to this: If sweet wines strike you as problematic, try them first with food. But do try them.

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