Sweet on You 

You don't need to be a slave to sugar to appreciate these sweet wines.

It's fair to say Paul Giamatti's hapless oenophile from Sideways would profess a rather profound distaste for sweet wines. If the man couldn't stand a sip of traditional Merlot, God knows what he'd do with a glass of white Merlot. But maybe, tucked away in his fridge behind the mayo and last week's lasagna leftovers one would find a half-empty bottle of Rosé. Or perhaps a decent bottle of semi-sweet Gewürztraminer.

Ah, who are we kidding? Out of spite alone, the Pinot Noir snob would surely steer clear of the wine establishment's red-headed stepchild. But he'd be missing out on some very worthwhile flavors. I can attest; as someone with a sweet tooth who's nonetheless overlooked sweet wines, I found myself quickly converted by a survey of five bargain bottles. So did my fellow taster Jocelyn; among five sub-$10 bottles, three sparked our taste for more. The two that didn't were simply too saccharine.

We began with a wine in the latter category: Pacific Rim's 2008 Columbia Valley Sweet Riesling ($9.98). A chart on the back of the label placed it in the "medium sweet" range; I'd hate to taste "sweet" sans qualifier. Jocelyn likened it to a flat soda. I couldn't disagree, but did appreciate that, though one-dimensional, the overpowering nose quickly mellowed.

The Barefoot Moscato ($5.48) wasn't much better. Jocelyn found it pleasantly fizzy, but still too candy-sweet to enjoy. I found the flavor delicate and complex compared to the Riesling, with lemony notes balancing an apple-peach body and a clean, crisp finish. Still, it's much too rich to pair with food and certainly not intended for sweet wine neophytes.

For converting new drinkers to the sweet side, you can't do much better than the Fetzer Valley Oaks Gewürztraminer ($7.98). This is a standby for my mom, a lover of sweet wines. We loved it, too. It has a light sweetness and subtle apple flavor that rolls across the tongue from front to back.

From there we delved into the red-tinted wines. First, Ménage à Trois' 2008 California Rosé ($8.98). A best-of-both-worlds blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Gewürztraminer, it features a broad range of characteristics including a delicately sweet nose, a buttery body, and a dry finish. Sophisticated yet drinkable with an appealing transparent pink hue, it was our favorite of the batch and the one we'd buy again first.

What else to close with than the white merlot? We settled on a 2008 Beringer California White Merlot ($4.98) with a saturated burgundy color and less complex taste. Jocelyn's sips summoned nostalgia of backyard picnics shared with white merlot, but she found this one's flavor flat and oversimplified. The wine has a cool, clean nose with a slightly vinegary finish common to cheap merlots. It was the C student of the group: a fair wine that neither impressed nor offended.

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