As a wine drinker, I have long believed that sweet wines—such as the Italian dessert wines, dessert wines from Australia, and some dessert wines from Spain—can best be described as “chocolate-based wines.” These wines are high in sugar, but low in alcohol, and are often not dry at all, as they may have as much as 25% residual sugar in them.

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“It isn’t sweet, is it?”

Sommeliers are asked the question at least once a day, says Zaitouna Kusto, general manager and sommelier at Esters Wine Shop & Bar in Santa Monica, California. “These well-meaning people aren’t wrong about their tastes, of course, but they are potentially misguided by a number of sociological factors they may not even realize.”

Sweet wines from the United States have had a bad image for a long time. In contrast to Europe’s great sweet wine traditions, such as Sauternes, Tokaji, and Italian passito, American bottlings are often grouped in with poorly produced, sugar-laden sweet offerings drunk by people who are considered not to know “true wine.”

“Over the years, there has been a negative impression of sweet wine in the United States… According to Pauline Lhote, winemaker at Chandon in Napa Valley, “a lot of people connected it with unsophisticated wine.” “However, there are many instances, both in Europe and in the United States, demonstrating that this is not the case.”

With high-quality, easy-drinking sweet wines that deserve a place on your table, a new generation of winemakers, especially in previously neglected regions like the Midwest, is gaining respect and overturning unfavorable perceptions.

Split image of Chandon bottle and grapes being harvestedChandon Winery harvesting Chardonnay grapes | Photo courtesy Chandon Winery

The Evolution of Sweet Wine

A large portion of this comeback tale may be found in the statistics. According to Nielsen, sweet wine is already a $1 billion business in the United States. It accounts for about 13% of total wine sales and increased by 8% in 2019.

According to NielsenIQ and IRI’s National Consumer Panel data, the pandemic boosted total wine sales by more than 22%, with sweet wine sales up by a staggering 40.1 percent.

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Sweet wines are often used to introduce novice wine drinkers to the world of wine. According to the National Consumer Panel, one out of every three new wine drinkers starts with these bottles. That isn’t to say that seasoned wine drinkers should avoid sweet wines.

“The biggest misperception I’ve seen is dismissing wines that have sweetness as not being a quality wine,” says Dennis Dunham, director of winemaking at Oliver Winery & Vineyards in Bloomington, Indiana. He says that sweetness is just another attribute of wine, like acidity, tannins or body.

Dennis Dunham, director of winemaking at Oliver Winery & Vineyards / Photo by Ann SchertzDennis Dunham, director of winemaking at Oliver Winery & Vineyards / Photo by Ann Schertz

“There’s a perception in the business that people should go from sweet to dry,” Dunham adds. “We believe you should drink anything you want.”

One explanation for sweet wine’s poor reputation is the way it was traditionally produced.

“Sweetness is a kind of cloaking,” explains Scott Carney, master sommelier and head of wine studies at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Making high-quality sweet wine, he claims, requires a great deal of expertise.

What Characterizes a Good Sweet Wine

A good sweet wine, like all excellent wines, begins with high-quality fruit in the vineyard. “It’s similar to cooking in that the components are crucial,” Lhote adds.

Since 2003, Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley has produced sweet wines. Initially, the company obtained Muscat grapes from independent farmers for its Florencia Muscat, but in 2009, it began to cultivate its own.

“It wasn’t that Muscat grapes were difficult to cultivate; they simply weren’t in great demand,” explains Palmaz winemaker Tina Mitchell. Palmaz was able to better regulate sweetness by switching to estate-grown Muscat grapes. It also enabled them to harvest when the fruit, in their instance orange blossom, mango, and papaya, had the appropriate tastes.

According to Mitchell, this shift, coupled with a five-year style adjustment that decreased the wine’s residual sugar and boosted acidity, has made Florencia the finest it’s ever been.

Palmaz's 2019 Florencia Muscat / Photo courtesy PalmazFlorencia Muscat 2019 from Palmaz | Photo courtesy of Palmaz

“The majority of people who visit a vineyard aren’t searching for dessert wine, so we surprise them with it [in the tasting room],” she explains.

To generate tension on the tongue, some winemakers strive for a sweet wine. “There has to be a balance between acidity and sweetness,” Lhote adds. “If you don’t, the wine will be too sweet.”

She uses the second-glass effect as an example, and she constantly asks her Chandon staff, “Would you drink more than one glass of this?” Would you consume the whole bottle?

If the answer is no, the wine will need further attention.

Sweet wines of high quality should have a hint of sweetness without becoming syrupy, while remaining creamy and smooth. “The trick is to end on a dry note,” Lhote adds.

Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston, SC. Wine from left to right - 2017 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine (Niagra Peninsula/Ontario, Canada) • Stonestreet Triple Crown Late Harvest Semillon (Sonoma County/Alexander Valley) Beverage Director Megan Mina pouring Inniskillin Credit Hack HargettAt Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston, SC, Beverage Director Megan Mina pours Inniskillin / Credit Hack Hargett

The fact that high-quality sweet wines go so well with food is one of the main reasons for their comeback.

“Sweet wine provides diversity and depth to any wine list, and because of its inherent acidity, it can be a wonderful tool for matching with foods other than dessert, such as salty and spicy food,” says Megan Mina, beverage director at Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston, South Carolina.

Few things, according to Juan Cortés, beverage manager at Atlanta’s The Chastain restaurant, can enhance a meal like a well-made sweet wine that can age and change over time. Philip Togni’s Ca’ Togni, a sweet red produced from black muscat grapes cultivated in Napa Valley, and Martinelli’s Muscat of Alexandria, from the Russian River Valley’s Jackass Hill vineyard, are two of his favorites.

Cortés adds, “I would put [Martinelli’s] side by side with the best European sweet wines any day.”

The Chastain Beverage Manager Juan Cortés pouring Philip Togni's Ca' Togni / Photo Courtesy of The ChastainJuan Cortés of The Chastain pouring Philip Togni’s Ca’ Togni / Photo courtesy of The Chastain

For good reason, sweet wines are often associated with dessert. According to Caroline Conner, wine coach and creator of Wine Dine Caroline, wine doesn’t always taste as sweet when served with dessert. Sweeter wines, on the other hand, go with a lot more. Conner cites racy, off-dry Riesling or Pinot Gris as examples of wines that may help balance the spiciness of Thai food, as well as how rich Sauternes pairs well with profoundly flavorful, salty foie gras.

Mina concurs. “I tell people who don’t like the notion of’sweet’ wine that this isn’t their mother’s Riesling,” she adds.

They’re also fantastic in cocktails. Take, for example, Oliver Winery’s Lemon Moscato, which launched earlier this year and quickly sold out of its first bottling run. The wine has a lightness to it that lends itself to being served over ice, thanks to a touch of fizz from fermentation and 6.8% alcohol by volume (abv). It may also be made into a pleasant spritzer by adding a dash of elderflower liqueur and finishing with dry Champagne.

It’s still difficult to persuade them to purchase a bottle of “sweet” wine. That’s why so many people learn to appreciate sweet wine in a tasting room. “Once you have people taste it, they really enjoy it,” Lhote says.

Wine is a beverage that is enjoyed by millions of people worldwide, but it has also been the subject of scrutiny for decades. First, it was snobbish wineries and Bordeaux that were blamed for the country’s “Vintner’s Disease,” a mysterious malady that decimated the wine industry. Then it was Bordeaux that was blamed for bankrupting its region. What’s next? Some say that the American sweet wine industry is equally unhealthy and that it should be rehabilitated.. Read more about best sweet wine cheap and let us know what you think.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • best sweet red wine
  • best sweet wines for beginners
  • best fruity wine
  • best sweet wine brands
  • best sweet wine cheap
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