Hitting the Sweet Spot: "Off-Dry" Wines Are Making a Comeback

"Americans fell in love with the wine's big, generous flavors."

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[Editor's note: Anthony Giglio will be writing about beer, wine, and spirits for Details.com every Friday. This is the first of a new weekly column.]


I had an epiphany recently during a dinner with Stephanie Gallo—granddaughter of Ernest Gallo, who with his brother Julio founded E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world's largest family-owned winery and the largest exporter of California wine. We were eating and drinking at the acclaimed New York restaurant Carbone to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Gallo Hearty Burgundy when suddenly the meal gave me a visceral flashback.

I was in my grandparents' knotty-pine-paneled basement in Jersey City, circa 1974, pouring heaping amounts of Hearty Burgundy into ice-filled rocks glasses at a table set for 20 for our weekly Sunday lunch. We kids got in on the hooch, too, but our wine was topped with cream soda to dilute and sweeten it. My sisters and I, along with our cousins, called them Spaghetti Spritzers, and drank them heartily while making toasts like the grownups. Then, after a good carbo-load of pasta, we'd fall asleep in a heap in front of the TV while the adults played cards for hours.

At Carbone, Stephanie kicked off the meal with glasses of Gallo Family Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, which paired well with appetizers like garlicky clams oreganato, lemon-spritzed fried calamari, and thick-sliced, velvety prosciutto topped with persimmons. But as the Hearty Burgundy was being poured, chef Mario Carbone sent out bowls of rigatoni bathed in a fiery-creamy, off-the-menu riff that tasted like the love child of Alfredo and Arrabiata. It was delicious, and it was a brilliant foil for the wines's plummy sweetness.

If you've never tasted Hearty Burgundy, it's a juicy, lip-smacking red concocted of Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Syrah, Petite Verdot, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. When it debuted in 1964, Americans were a good quarter-century from talking about wines by their grape names. Recalling her grandfather and great uncle's ideas behind Hearty Burgundy, Stephanie told me the wine was blended to pair with the foods like big sauces, rich meats, and sharp cheeses. "Americans fell in love with the wine's big, generous flavors," she said. It was certainly big on my family's table, but I'd forgotten its appeal until I tasted Carbone's spicy pasta sauce, which reminded me that my family often shook peperoncino flakes over our pasta when it's dressed in "Sunday Sauce"—or as Northeast Italian-Americans call it, "the gravy."

Sweet wines like Hearty Burgundy typically get pooh-poohed by wine snobs as cheap cheats. Granted, it is inexpensive—only $8 for a 1.5-liter bottle. But as any good sommelier will tell you, "off-dry" wines, as they're known in the biz, still possess a good amount of acidity to refresh the palate and boost the non-fiery flavors in a dish, while tamping down the heat with an ample dose of fruitiness and/or sweetness. It's why spicy Asian and Indian dishes taste best with slightly sweet Rieslings, Gewrztraminers, or Moscatos. When I remarked to Stephanie that the Hearty Burgundy could well be a substitute for a good fizzy Lambrusco, she gave me a smile that said E. & J. Gallo would have been proud of the comparison.

Back home, inspired, I've been making spicy dishes and pairing them with all sorts of Lambrusco wines. There was a time in the early 1970s when Lambrusco, like Riunite, was considered an accessible if unsophisticated sparkling wine. Today in smart restaurants and shops you'll find them next to famously great bottles, bearing names like Lini, Cleto Chiarli, Fattoria Moretto, Medici Ermete, and Tenuta Pederzana, to name only a few. They're red, effervescent, and slightly "off-dry," so they pair beautifully with spicy dishes and even with bitter chocolate-based desserts. They might cost you thrice the price of Hearty Burgundy for half the quantity, but they're solid examples of sweet old-timers whose time came and went—and, thankfully, has come back again.

—Follow Anthony Giglio on Twitter @WineWiseGuy.

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