There is something to be said about the sugar industry, for I can’t imagine a cartel that’s stronger or more lethal. As addictions, sugar is the worst of the lot, rivalled only by nicotine. Alcohol, or even cocaine for that matter, are distant thirds when comparing the efficiency with which sugar has managed to remain so potent and yet so relevant at the same time to the living majority on the planet. If I were to become a gangster, I too would deal in the white powder—powdered sugar, that is.
But I appear to be painting sugar a monster when it really isn’t. The thing is, like with all highs, sugar only needs to be controlled. Relentless usage leads to dependence of a quotidian nature, one that slowly creeps up and all around, invading our lives. If we can keep this sugar use in check, it’s one of the best taste enhancers and mouthfeel generators to be found. Just ask German winemakers who make some of the most coveted wines in the world and deftly balance it all with trace amounts of sugar.
Recently, while in Germany, I underwent a programme to become an ambassador for the VDP, a private consortium of the top German wine estates. They were all trying to fix the problems faced by German wines the world over viz it’s difficult to tell from the label if a wine is dry or sweet.
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Well, the Germans argued, first, we need to define what is ‘dry’ and ‘sweet’. But more importantly, it’s balance that needs to be defined and, ultimately, aimed for in a wine. Now, Germany isn’t exactly your tropical country with unlimited sunshine hours. The little that they get can be scattered and the subsequent result is a crop with racing acidity. To drink those wines with no residual sugar would be like trying to suck on an unripe lemon, rind and all. Consequently, experienced winemakers will dabble with sugar like a gentle fine-hair size 2 paintbrush in the hands of an artist: to add accent and texture without marring the picture underneath. It’s like when you have an early summer mango: adding just a pinch of sugar really brings out the fruity flavour, but add too much and it’s cloying and sickly.
Similarly, the Germans devised a plan to use certain words to denote this acidity-sugar balance. ‘Trocken’ would denote dry and terms like ‘Spätlese’, ‘Auslese’, ‘BA’ and ‘TBA’ would be used for sweet wines. In between these two would lie the category Kabinett, which would denote fruity, that is, the wine might show some sugar upfront, but as the sip slides down the throat, it would leave a dry finish.
If it sounds too simple, it’s useful to keep it that way. Complicate it by calculating the actual sugar in grams/litre and you may get varying figures from different parts of the land. The reason for this is that to view the sugar without the acidity (and the million other components), which could contribute to its dryness, is incomplete.
Germany makes some really fine wine. They have made it for centuries. They pretty much established the region and wines of Champagne for their neighbouring French fellows. They know better than to drown out the nuances of an elegant Riesling or Sylvaner with nonsensical quantities to sugar. If anything, other industries should take a page from the VDP book and understand how to pull back sweetness in the interest of taste and health. But it will be a cold day in May before all these cola giants and sweet syrupy ‘drinks-in-cardboard-boxes’-makers think about doing the right thing. The business of sugar is lucrative and empowers them to ensure that pettiness like social responsibility and the general public interest don’t get in the way of annual sales figures and profit projections.
The writer is a sommelier