Are sweet wines here to stay?


THE [yellow tail] Red Moscato was introduced in the Philippine market just mid last year

FILIPINOS have always had a sweet tooth, and it is quite evident in the country’s high consumption of sugary drinks. This is in fact such a serious concern that obesity and health issues including diabetes have been rising in the country, with huge blame put squarely on our insatiable consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages or SSBs. When President Duterte wanted to pump-prime the country’s economy, the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (or TRAIN Act under Republic Act No. 10963) was enacted into law December 2017. Among products the Government targeted to get much needed funds were the SSBs. The TRAIN law slapped an excise tax of P6/liter on drinks with caloric and non-caloric sweeteners, and P12/liter on beverages using high-fructose corn syrup. Soft drinks, energy drinks, juice drinks all contain mostly high-fructose corn syrup because it is much cheaper than sugar. The excise tax on SSB as a category was expected to reach a whopping P54.5 billion annually. Just imagine, on soft drinks alone, the Philippine per capita consumption is already around 88 liters. This number is 8,800% higher when compared to the Philippine per capita wine consumption of just 100ml.

WINE CONSUMPTION LIKE THE US IN THE 1970S
The growth of wines in the US, especially in the 1970s, was buoyed by the market launch by E&J Gallo Winery (still the world’s largest winery) of Boone’s Farm Apple and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wines, or then what was called “pop” wines, otherwise classified as beverage wines. These are slightly carbonated apple-based wines that are low in alcohol and with added flavors that make them sweet. They are not per se wines as we know that are made from 100% grape juice. It is no coincidence that the US was the world’s largest consumer of soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi even way back then. Boone’s Farm became a huge success and was extremely popular, especially among college kids who used this drink as transition from cola to alcoholic beverages.

Aside from Boone’s Farm, Gallo also led the grape wine market with household favorites like their long tenured Hearty Burgundy. During this era, America’s best-selling imported wine was the flask-shaped Mateus Rose from Portugal. Noticed that both these wines were on the semi-sweet side because of higher than normal residual sugar of 1.5-2%. Obviously back then dry wines did not sell as much.

I find that there is a parallel between the US wine market in the 1970s with the state of wines in the Philippines the last decade or so, as it applies to our wine culture, taste preference, and wine sophistication. Already, our country’s own creation, Novellino Wine (a local wine producer that blends imported grape juices) has cashed in on this with its Novellino Bianco Classico and Rosso Classico — both slightly fizzy, sweet, and low in alcohol.

Novellino has made a huge impact in the last two decades and may have been the single reason why Philippine per capita wine consumption is now around 100 ml versus what it was prior to Novellino, which was seriously just a miniscule per capita of a tablespoon or so of wine only. It can therefore be assumed that to grow the wine business further, more sweet wines are probably needed — side by side with an improving economy of course.

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SWEET WINES BASED ON SUGAR LEVEL
Sweet wines are basically classified as wines that have 3% residual sugar or more, or 30 gms of sugar per liter. Coke, the world’s No. 1 and also our country’s undisputed soft drink leader, has around 100 gm of sugar in every liter. The sweetest wines are actually not that dissimilar. For example, Martini Asti Spumante, one of the most popular bubblies in the Philippines, is roughly in the 90-120 gms per liter range, right in the sweetness vicinity of Coca Cola. Asti Spumante is made from Moscato grapes, and this is the varietal that is selling like hotcakes right now.

Other wines that are close in sweetness/residual sugar level to soft drinks include more expensive wines like Canadian Icewines (made from either Canada’s own hybrid varietal vidal or riesling grapes), German Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese (made from mostly riesling), Hungarian Tokaji (made from local varietal fermint), and Bordeaux’s proudest white wine, Sauternes (made from semillon and sauvignon blanc). These wines are sweet because they are either harvested late to retain as much sugar concentration as possible, or infected with the grey fungus Botrytis Cinerea, also called “noble rot.” All these wines — from Canadian Icewines to Sauternes — are, however, not cheap at all and can fetch prices of up to 10 times more than a regular Moscato wine.

MOSCATO AS A VARIETAL
Moscato comes from the muscat grape varietal family and has been in existence for thousands of years, crossing different countries and continents. The muscat grape can come in different colors, ranging from light green (muscat blanc a petits grains), to orange (orange muscat), to even near black (black muscat). But it is in Piedmont, Northern Italy, where moscato (of the muscat blanc type) is probably at its most famous stage. For a long time now, Filipinos have been enamored by the luscious sweet fragrance and honeyed taste of Asti Spumante which is made from this grape.

Moscato d’Asti, which literally means “moscato from the town of Asti in Piedmont,” is probably the best and most expensive version of this varietal. The Moscato d’Asti wines are normally just frizzante or fizzy, and not quite spumante or sparkling yet. The Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti is one of the better ones I have tried of the still wines (not the late harvest style). Moscato is known for its alluring nose, very grapey characteristics, slight fizziness, low alcohol, and lip-smacking finish.

THE MOSCATO CRAZE
Following the parallel between the US wine trend in the 1970s and the Philippines of past decade or so, the country’s ongoing Moscato craze is like the White Zinfandel boom in the US that started in the 1970s. The high demand for Novellino is similar to the Boone’s Farm phenomenon of back then. Right now, Moscato is the hottest varietal in the country, with several big wine brands jumping into this bandwagon. Already, we see big names like Hardys, Jacob’s Creek, Sutter Home, Beringer, Concha y Toro, and Frontera coming out with their own Moscato wines.

Leading the pack, however, is still Australia’s most popular wine export, Yellow Tail. Yellow Tail is currently the top selling Moscato wine in the country with a whole Moscato range to boot, including the White Moscato, Pink Moscato, and recently introduced Red Moscato. Most still wine Moscatos in supermarket shelves now have between 5-9% sugar — making it really appealing to sweet-toothed Filipinos.

While Piedmont — and Asti in particular — may have brought us Moscato, it is now the New World led by the Australian brands that are leading the charge in selling Moscato in the country. I think that one reason why the Australian version has surpassed Moscato from Asti is that traditional Italian Moscato wines are typically pricier and have really very low alcohol levels of 5.5% as compared to the higher alcohol content of up to 7.5% to 9% of their Australian counterparts. Filipinos like their wines sweet — but they also like them with enough alcohol for a “punch.”

Eventually the preference for a sweet taste will dry up (pun intended) as we as a country will grow as wine consumers and will eventually go for more sustainable and sophisticated dry wine. But for now, wine importers will be taking advantage of this market demand as long as consumers like their wines sweet and delicious. And to our legislators, please do not add sweet wines into any future TRAIN law revision, as we still want to be able to afford these small wine pleasures.

For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com. He has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalistes et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sherwinlao.

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