Van Morrison’s lyric in Behind the Ritual evokes the taste of a sacramental libation. Beyond that context, who drinks sweet wine anymore?
Turns out that during the COVID pandemic, sales of sweet wines increased dramatically. Researchers attribute the rising popularity of sweet wines to the way it aligns with comfort foods and with the increasingly popular Asian and Mexican foods. Sweet wines match up with sweet treats and moderate spicy dishes. Discriminating wine buyers, who would just as soon chew bubble gum while dining as they would drink one of the best-selling White Zinfandels or Barefoot fruit wines, will make an exception for, say, a Halbtrocken/Classic (semi-sweet) Riesling poured with Thai green curry, Sichuan Dandan noodles, or Korean Bulgogi. The slightly sweet chaser of a Hogue Cellars Late Harvest Riesling White Wine from the Columbia Valley of Washington State ($9!) cools the heat and reveals the interplay of food flavors and spices.
The late harvest group of wines concentrate sugars as the grapes hang on the vines after weather cools in the fall. Yeasts that convert sugars to alcohol during fermentation do so at a faster rate in grapes with more concentrated sugars and, if fast enough, kill the yeasts, ending conversion of sugars to alcohol. The late harvest wines have lower alcohol per volume, generally in the 10 – 12% range, and residual sugars that make them sweeter than wines that have more of the sugars converted to alcohol and alcohol per volume in the 13 – 16% range. Vineyards in cooler regions in the northern frontiers of the Loire, Alsace, and Rhine regions make the most of an unexpected cold snap during the harvest season. After a day of tasting outstanding dry wines in the California Napa and Sonoma regions, a glass of a local late harvest Pinot Noir enlivens the savory and fruit blend of grilled pork loin with sour cherry sauce.
Two other groups of sweet wines have evolved in response to challenging conditions. The “noble rot” of white grapes, caused by the fungus Bortrytis cinerea, sounds like a disaster, but serves to leach water through the skins of the grapes and concentrate sugars. This happy accident of nature endows thin skin Semillion grapes with an exceptional sweetness. Blended as in classic French white Bordeaux with Sauvignon Blanc, aged Sauternes commands sky high prices. Among the best, Maison Blanche in Long Boat Key Florida offers a half-bottle of 2012 Château d’Yquem, 2012 ($325 at the restaurant). It pairs beautifully with another indulgence, Foie Gras from D’Artagnan.
What happens if wine grapes freeze? Again, under favorable conditions, sugars concentrate in the grapes. The Germans call the sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes Eiswein. LBK Liquors’ Josef Boyer recommends the Dr. Pauly Bergweiler 2016 Noble House Eiswein ($23 half bottle). Pear and citrus flavors keep the sweet base from cloying. It serves as a wine with dessert, or better on its own, as a dessert wine.
The late harvest, Bortrytis, and Eiswein groups of sweet wines have each evolved as a response to adverse events. That winemakers have responded so well seems a fitting lesson in how to create sweet results in the face of adversity.
S. W. Hermansen has used his expertise in econometrics, data science and epidemiology to help develop research databases for the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and Health Resources and Services. He has visited premier vineyards and taste wines from major appellations in California, Oregon, New York State, and internationally from Tuscany and the Piedmont in Italy, the Ribera del Duero in Spain, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia, and the Otego Valley in New Zealand. Currently he splits time between residences in Chevy Chase, Maryland and St. Armand’s Circle in Florida.
Rich Hermansen selected has first wine list for a restaurant shortly after graduating from college with a degree in Mathematics. He has extensive service and management experience in the food and wine industry. Family and friends rate him as their favorite chef, bartender, and wine steward. He lives in Severna Park, Maryland.