Cathy Strange’s role as global cheese and specialty foods buyer for Whole Foods Market® puts her in the unique position of travelling the world to not only discover and encourage the world’s great cheesemakers, but also to help advance the artisanal food movement and investigate the world’s emergent food trends. If a new preparation technique is causing ripples in Berlin, or a centuries-old curing tradition is gaining a foothold in Seattle, Cathy knows about it.
Sweet is Hot Again
When talking wine, up until quite recently, “sweet” was a term avoided at all costs. It used to mean low-quality wines of little or no complexity. When I think back on past sips of sweet wines the word that comes to mind is “cloying” – that sugary, syrupy sweetness that completely dominates and sweeps away any other possible flavors.
Well I’m happy to say those days are behind us. Sweet wines, wines with loads of forward fruit flavors, are back and they’re better than ever.
First, a little history. For hundreds of years sweet wines were the wines of nobility, wines to be desired and treasured. Sweet wines were more stable, had greater longevity and often required more aging and effort to make. They were the wines of society. Kings paid dearly for sauternes and tokays. It’s said that George Washington drank a pint of madeira a day(!) and Betsy Ross sipped sweet wine when sewing the first flag of the United States.
So what happened? In the 1930s, after Prohibition, sweet wines flooded the US market, making up for lost time. Soon these mass-produced syrupy sweet concoctions fell out of favor as winemakers in California and elsewhere began perfecting the art of vinting quality, complex table wines.
A New Winemaking Focus
Now, two things are happening. First, winemakers have tuned in to the fact that there is a huge un-tapped audience of potential wine drinkers who are choosing sweet cocktails made with sodas and fruit juices.
Now these winemakers are using their substantial expertise to create fruity, complex, sometimes effervescent wines. And through technology and a renaissance in expertise, they are able to dial in to the exact notes, textures and structures they want in their wines.
This means that making great, respectable sweet wines is an attainable goal. Getting the balance just right between the residual sugars, tangy acidity and structured tannins is the secret, and winemakers today are nailing it.
Let me tell you about some of the sweet wines I’m excited about. Cupcake Vineyards Riesling is sweet-leaning but crisp and citrusy. I like pairing it with spicy curries. For summer celebrations I’ve been uncorking Pizzolato’s Moscato. It’s a lovely bubbly organic offering that’s nimbly sweet with hints of peach. I also recommend Electra from California’s Quady Winery. It’s light, floral, with a delicate peachy sweetness offset by a flash of brisk crispness. A wonderful wine from Argentina’s Santa Julia winery is their Dulce Tinto Sweet Red. It’s surprisingly complex, and balances fresh fruity notes of cherry, strawberry and pomegranate with a delicate acidity. I particularly enjoy the long, juicy jammy finish on this one!
And second, there is a rediscovery of those wonderful wines that stayed true to their roots even when as interest in sweet wines waned. These delicious, fruity and fun wines are almost always blends from Europe, like kabinetts from Germany or some burgundys or rosés from France. Two strong old-world offerings that hit the sweet spot: Römerhof Beerenauslese from Germany and Italy’s Presto Moscato. The Römerhof is a late-harvest Riesling, vibrant with brown sugar, apricot and peach flavors. The light, refreshing Presto shows creamy tiny bubbles and just a hint of fruit.
Lately, I’ve been loving this amazing lambrusco from Italy. It’s called Vecchia Modena Premium from Cleto Chiarli and Figli. Slightly bubbly – Italian’s say frizzante – with notes of pomegranate and a hint of minerality. And with a nod toward complexity, its finish is surprisingly dry.
And feel free to customize your own cocktails! Spritzing the Reds, or adding muddled fresh fruit or fresh-squeezed juice to the rieslings or moscatos is a great idea.
So even if you have a highly developed wine palate and love those big, bold, meaty Reds or well-oaked Whites, it may be time to take another look at the world of sweet wines. You may be pleasantly surprised!
What new fruity wines have you discovered? I’d love to hear about them.