What's wrong with sweet wines? Nothing, according to Master of Wine Tim Hanni. Hanni and Virginia Utermohlen recently published a report titled Beverage Preferences, Attitudes, & Behavior of ‘Sweet’ vs. 'Tolerant’ Wine Consumers (a PDF version of the report with their conclusions is available in this link) based upon the results of an online survey. In this report respondents are separated into four distinct taste preference groups: sweet, sensitive, hyper-sensitive, and tolerant. These classifications bear more than a passing resemblance to the concept of super-tasters and the separation of individuals into super-tasters, tasters, and non-tasters.
Most of the focus of the study is on the dichotomy between "sweet" and "tolerant" consumers. "Sweet" tasters prefer fruitier wines with residual sugar, and tend to be younger and female. "Tolerant" tasters prefer powerful if not bitter, astringent wines, and tend to be older and male. In fact, the description of the "tolerant" taster seems to match the stereotype of an older guy who's a wine snob and shops by point ratings. According to Hanni and Utermohlen's conclusions, "sweet" tasters are very sensitive to non-sweet flavors like bitterness thus need residual sugar to offset these flavors, while "tolerant" tasters have a high sensitivity threshold for bitterness, astringency and the burn of high alcohol.
I can certainly identify with the issues related to "tolerant" tasters dominating the world of fine wine criticism. Older male critics like Parker and Miller seemingly will tolerate any level of extraction and oak, and favor raw intensity and power over other more delicate expressions. It is clear the "tolerant" taster is understood to have learned some of his preferences given that it is stated the language for marketing wines to him is "point ratings, complex, bold, intense." Knowledge of point ratings implies the "tolerant" taster reads or follows some critics like Parker or magazines like Wine Spectator. Thus, this group clearly is not basing its interests solely upon intrinsic tastes, but upon learned preferences as well.
Yet the "sweet" taster is defined in such a manner that it appears he buys wine based solely upon his own taste with little regard to external influence. The "sweet" taster seems to have less education about wine, which undoubtedly influences taste preference. At the same time, though, cultural influence from the prevalence of highly sweetened processed foods and soft drinks in the US is not discussed in the report. My hypothesis is that much of the preference for very sweet foods and beverages results from conditioning. While individuals are less or more sensitive to bitterness according to the results in this report, it is also likely they may be less or more sensitive to sweetness. Hanni and Utermohlen argue "sweet" tasters are more sensitive to bitterness, acidity and astringency, but I suspect that it's just as prevalent that they are less sensitive to sweetness.
The report ultimately seems focused on how to sell wine to "sweet" tasters in the most expedient fashion. It even suggests that "sweet" tasters are under-served by the wine industry. I disagree with this conclusion. Walk into a grocery store and pick a random wine off the shelf. Typically you will find a fruity, slightly sweet, often vanillified wine with low acidity and very little tannin. This is precisely the type of wine that appeals to the "sweet" drinker based on Hanni and Utermohlen's definition of this classification. In fact, by volume most of the wine produced in the US seems to be targeted towards the "sweet" consumer.
Moreover, I disagree that "sweet" consumers cannot or should not expand their horizons as wine drinkers (not to mention food eaters). In some sense "tolerant" tasters are over-educated, while "sweet" tasters are under-educated. While individuals should ultimately buy what they like, it's important to understand that a Nebbiolo by nature tends to be tannic and Sangiovese by nature tends to be acidic, for example, and wine that isn't manufactured as a processed food varies from vintage to vintage. Wine appreciation is a synthesis of both personal preference and understanding of regional, varietal and vintage expression. I personally love sweet foods like fresh fruit, candy and chocolates, but also understand that these flavors don't necessarily belong in every wine.
Returning to the original question, I agree with Tim Hanni that there is nothing wrong with sweet wines or "sweet" tasters. In fact, many sweet wines like Sauternes, Port, demi-sec Vouvray and late harvest Riesling are considered among the most noble, long-lived and great wines in the world. The key here is to educate "sweet" wine consumers that these are unique wines because of their production methods, aging capacity and complexity. While there is a certain stigma attached to a preference for sweet wine, the generic White Zinfandels and sweet Muscats that sweet wine drinkers regularly purchase are treated quite justifiably as ordinary wines. They're the vinous analog to McDonald's: rich in certain pleasing flavors, be it sugar or fat, but otherwise simple manufactured consumables.
I was once there, too. Some years ago I liked something called Mattie's Perch Shiraz purely because it "went down smooth." I haven't tried it recently, but my guess is that it would be mild in acid and tannins, fruity and a bit sweet in the terms I'd use now. To look at this from a slightly different angle, I'd argue wine is about both hedonic and aesthetic appreciation. We all understand and seek hedonic enjoyment from birth, but aesthetic context must be developed. This is no different than learning about any craft, from film, to music, to sculpture, to architecture. In the social media saturated world once can click the "I like this" next to anything. Mattie's Perch was worthy of an "I like" back in the aughts. But that preference was quite separate from understanding context and this brand's place in the big picture.