Learn all about pairing sweeter wines with different foods

"Eww, it's so sweet" is a gripe I love to hear when serving guests a not-so-dry wine because I know the following comment will be, "Oh, this is delicious!" What causes this presto change-o from yuck to yummy? Food, of course! Sweeter wines are delicious food complements and crowd-pleasers when you follow simple strategies.

First, some background: Wine's sweetness is measured in grams per liter (g/l) of sugar. Perception of sugar varies widely. Experienced tasters can perceive sugar below 3 g/l. European wine drinkers notice sweetness at about 4 g/l. In the U.S., most people don't taste sugar until 10 g/l due to our overall sweet diet. The irony is that as our national diet sweetens, our enthusiasm for sweeter wine sours. (According to The Diabetes Council, the U.S. ranks #1 in per capita sugar consumption, with sweetened beverages - but not wine - the prime culprit.) Some average sweetness levels include domestic Chardonnay, 6 g/l; mass-marketed reds, 15 g/l; Coca-Cola, 115 g/l; moscato d'Asti, 150 g/l.

Strategy #1: Sweeter for the sweets. Serve wine a little sweeter than your dish. Otherwise, the wine you loved on first taste becomes hard and bitter with food. Some foods have an impression of sweetness, with little or no actual sugar; these call for delicately sweet wines, often called "off-dry." Sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red onions and red peppers complement off-dry Rosè from Spain or France. I love Schloss Gobelsburg "Gobelsburger" riesling (Austria, under $20) for deli chicken salad.

Words like glazed or honey-baked and recipes including dried fruit or corn syrup are clues you need a noticeably sweet wine, well above 10 g/l sugar, like the great-value riesling Clean Slate 2021 (Germany, under $12).

Finally, if you think an ooey-gooey chocolate souffle couldn't be more decadent, try it with Isabel Cream Sherry, Valdespino, about 115 g/l (Spain, about $20). For a new level of indulgence, serve moscato d'Asti, Saccaro (Italy, about $20) with blue cheese with honey or cannoli.

Strategy #2: Sugar and spice makes everything nice. Sweeter wines protect the palate from the singe of spice and pair with international dishes from three-alarm Asian cuisine to your favorite sweet-spicy barbecue sauce. For lightly spiced dishes like chipotle skillet chicken thighs, try Graham Beck Brut Rosè, about 8 g/l (South Africa, about $25) or their sweeter demi-sec Bliss (about $20).

Strategy #3: Don't fight Mother Nature. If you indulge in sea-salted caramels or chocolate pretzels, you satisfy your primal urge for salt and sugar, both crucial for survival. Try the off-dry Fetzer 2019 Shaly Loam Gewürztraminer (CA, under $10), a U.S. classic to complement U.S. cuisine, including cured meats - from prosciutto to a Chicago hot dog with neon green sweet relish - and salty Asian sauces such as soy and nuoc cham.

But how much sugar is in the bottle you are considering for purchase? This is the rub. Even producers are stymied on how to inform customers, with outreach campaigns generally scrapped with the new year's budget. Without printed guidance, you could taste thousands of sweeter wines or find yourself a wine merchant who tastes wines for you, learns your preferences and recommends wines within your budget.

I personally give preference to the riesling grape, specially grown in the rocky hills of Austria, Germany and northern Italy. These wines taste like soil and fruit falling in love, with stony mountain vineyards intertwining rich minerality throughout riesling's stone fruit flavors at sweetness levels from under 3 g/l to above 150 g/l.

On May 24, you can taste rieslings, reds and German bubbly, along with outdoor barbecue and grilled brats, in a Maifest celebration hosted by Wines of Germany and BottlesUp! wine shop (3164A N. Broadway, Chicago). For details and to register, contact

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily

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