As much as some hate to admit it, Americans like sweet wine. It helps explain why some of the most popular red table wines in the U.S. include a fair bit of residual sugar.
Tim Hanni, one of the most affable, approachable and studious Masters of Wine in the world, pulls on this thread throughout his fascinating book on sensory studies titled “Why You Like The Wines You Like.”
“Our research confirms the people who prefer sweet wines unabashedly declare that they want wine that is sweet, not just off-dry or slightly sweet, and the reticence of the wine industry to employ the word sweet as a descriptor to this segment is unfounded,” he writes.
In fact, Hanni, who followed up with “The Sweet Wine Lover’s Manifesto” in 2016, urges wineries, restaurants, retailers, writers and wine competitions to label their dessert wine categories simply as “sweet wines.”
Hanni, now a resident of Bend, Ore., with the moniker of “The Wine Anti-Snob” on his website, points out that sweet wines historically were viewed as table wines and served during any course of the meal, from soup to nuts as it were. Hanni blames regulations and taxation policies established by the U.S. government after Prohibition for prompting the creation of the “dessert wine” category.
Think about it. The most critical factor for chefs — and Hanni spent years on the East Coast as a chef — to consider when pairing these “dessert-style” wines is that the wine must be sweeter than the dish they are serving it with. That’s easy for appetizers and entrees. However, the sugar content makes sweet dessert dishes the trickiest to match up with wines labeled in the U.S. as “late harvest,” “ice wine” and Port-style.
For centuries, these styles of wine have ranked among the world’s most famous and expensive. Château d’Yquem, the storied French producer of Sauternes in Bordeaux, is among the most remarkable wines on the planet and a 750-milliliter bottle of this superbly sweet blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sèmillon commands more $350 upon release — when you can find it. As it ages, the wine gains complexity and the resale price of any Château d’Yquem climbs exponentially. It’s a similar story for prized examples of auslese — sweet Riesling — from Germany and Tokaji from Hungary.
For those who save sweet wines for dessert, think of a savory cheesecake or a simple plate of dried fruit and cheese particularly with a late harvest and ice wine.
With Port-style wines, it doesn’t get much better than a fistful of filberts — a k a hazelnuts — and a wedge of pungent Stilton cheese. And these fortified wines are best enjoyed while you are relaxing near a crackling fireplace or an outdoor firepit ringed by fun and frivolity.
These wines also improve and gain complexity over time. By their nature, fortified wines don’t demand much special treatment after opening, and sweet white wines will do just fine for a week or so in the chiller.
“The Sweet market segment is large and under leveraged,” Hanni writes. “If the wine industry continues to stigmatize sweet wine, (consumers) will continue to opt for cocktails and opt out of the wine category.”
Below were a few of the top sweet wines from Pacific Northwest competitions in the past 12 months. In many instances, these vintages are still available at the winery even though they are beautiful award-winning wines worthy of collecting, cellaring and enjoying.
Koenig Vineyards 2018 Riesling Ice Wine, Snake River Valley $25: Greg Koenig sold his stately winery in Caldwell, Idaho, just a few months after the late December freeze that paved the way for this remarkable nectar. The nose is full of honeyed fruit, pear and peach, lemon meringue and mountain flowers. The palate is one of sweet sap, full of fruit and caramel, yet it maintains an honest sense of freshness and purity from plenty of lemony acidity to balance the 24 percent residual sugar. This earned best of show at the Idaho Wine Competition ahead of its gold medal at the Great Northwest Invitational.
Hinzerling Winery NV Angeliqua Dessert Wine, Yakima Valley, $30: Mike Wallace left us in 2016 with some delectable legacies as his widow, Frankie, continues to work through the last few bottles of inventory from historic Hinzerling Winery in Prosser. His inspiration to create this style of fortified wine came while studying the history of winemaking at missions in California. Rather than use the Mission grape, Wallace, a graduate of University of California-Davis, wisely substituted Gewürztraminer — the grape from Alsace that helped Washington earn some buzz in the 1960s. Aromas include whiffs of Big Island honey and butterscotch, which are followed by flavors of candied fruit, vanilla, a lovely creamy midpalate, a bite of maple nut and a cleansing finish of orange peel. With 18 percent residual sugar and 18 percent alcohol, it’s delightfully sneaky and incredibly ageworthy.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2016 Ethos Late Harvest Reserve Riesling, Columbia Valley, $40: Bob Bertheau and his white wine team, led by David Rosenthal, reach into Horse Heaven Vineyard near Columbia Crest for this beautiful botrytis-affected late harvest effort with Riesling. It offers everything fans of this noble white grape love, starting with a vibrant nose that jumps out with hints of golden raisin, peach pie and dried apricot, which make their way into the flavors. Apple sauce spices sprinkle in at the finish.
Apolloni Vineyards 2015 Dolce Vino Viognier, Oregon, $22: Italian-born Alfredo Apolloni grew up in a family with more than a century of history in the wine industry, which explains the sweet reference to this Viognier produced in an effort to replicate an ice wine. Huge aromas of apricot and mango draw you inside, where there is beautiful viscosity to the flavors of peach, honey and Gala apple. There’s ample acidity for this sweet sipper to achieve balance.
Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2018 Estate Chenin Blanc Ice Wine, Red Mountain $50: This style of dessert wine is rare because the grapes must freeze on the vine for several hours at 17 degrees Fahrenheit before they are harvested. The Williams family relies on a pocket of its most historic vineyard for ice wine, providing a rare nectar loaded with aromas of lavender-infused honey, cloves and ripe nectarine. Honeyed flavors of baked orchard fruit are backed by ample acidity to keep all the sweetness — 17 percent residual sugar — in balance. It earned gold medals at the Washington State Wine Competition and the Cascadia International.
Gård Vintners 2014 Lawrence Vineyards Riesling Ice Wine, Columbia Valley $60: Walla Walla winemaker Aryn Morell has been making wine for the Lawrence family since 2010. Fruit pulled on Dec. 1 spent nine months in twice-used French oak barrels, and the profile could be mistaken for a British Columbia ice wine. Hints of botrytis join honey, apricot glacéed and butterscotch in the nose. Rich flavors of caramel, butterscotch and banana carry into a finish of nougat, and the fluid comes with ample acidity for the 19 percent residual sugar.
Goose Ridge Vineyards 2016 Estate Riesling Ice Wine, Columbia Valley $50: Andrew Wilson has the luxury of working with Monson family fruit in the proposed Goose Gap American Viticultural Area near Richland, Wash., so he was able to take it at the precise moment he wanted, which was Dec. 14, at 42 Brix. After a two-month fermentation, it finished out at nearly 25 percent residual sugar, leaving him with a heavenly wine that opens with aromas of honey, apricot glacéed and spice. It’s syrupy and rich with tropical fruit, ample acidity and a finish of Bananas Foster.
College Cellars NV Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Tawny Style Barbera Dessert Wine, Red Mountain, $40: Winemaking educator Tim Donahue and his students continue to spin out hits from their building at Walla Walla Community College, and they produce this in a semi-solera method. They began stacking barrels of fortified Barbera from this famous vineyard in 2011, and they top each barrel with younger wine. This barrel, which was the oldest, is reminiscent of dates, toffee, chocolate, dark-roast coffee and smooth peanut butter. It earned a double gold — meaning a panel voted unanimously for gold — at the Washington State Wine Competition and went on to win best dessert wine and nearly took the prize as best of show.