What is Sweet Wine and Which California Wineries Make it the Best?
Sweet wine is perhaps one of the most underrated types of vino in the wine world. With a rich history and devoted consumers worldwide, it’s worth taking some time to look at sweet wine, as well as some of the best California producers of this delicious treat.
What Makes Sweet Wine Sweet?
Sweet wine, also referred to as dessert wine, differs from crisper or more bitter wines in chemical composition. Technically speaking a sweet wine can be named as such if there’s more than 45 g/l of sugar. However, there are many factors that go into how sweet a wine is, but the level of sugars, alcohol, acids, and tannins have a lot to do with the resulting flavor. Sweet wines have more sugar and alcohol whereas other wines have a higher concentration of acids (which contribute to a sour taste) and tannins (which contribute to a slightly bitter taste). Acids and tannins counteract the effect of sugars and alcohol once they reach a certain amount, and this balance determines how the wine tastes. The determining factors behind a wine’s sweetness are more complex, however. Entire books have been written on the subject, most notably The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud.
History Of Sweet Wine
The quality of sweetness has been sought after by winemakers throughout history. From the ancient Greeks to the modern day wine lovers have created a variety of methods to sweeten the taste of wine. Perhaps one of the most common ways that people have acquired a sweet wine is by harvesting grapes as late in the season as possible, a method favored in Roman times. However, Greeks believed in harvesting the grapes early so they didn’t lose all of their acidity. Then, they’d let the grapes sit in the sun for a few days so they would shrivel, thus concentrating the amount of sugar they contained without losing the acidity. Another popular method of preserving a wine’s sweetness is to halt the fermentation process, a task the ancients completed by plunging the amphoras beneath cold water until winter came. The history of wine is vast and complex, and winemakers have used a variety of methods to achieve high-quality wines throughout the years. However, there’s no debating the fact that sweet wines have always had a place in the hearts of oenophiles.
California Sweet Wines
California dessert wines have been around since the beginning of California wine production. In fact, dessert wines used to be the most popular wines nationwide until the 1960s when dry table wines became the preference. While sweet wines only make up a small percentage of the wine produced in California, there’s an argument to be made that this scaling back of dessert wine production has resulted in some of the best sweet wine in California history.
There’s as much variety in dessert wines as there is in drier wines. For instance, some dessert wines don’t have any more alcohol than table wines while others can boast up to 20 percent alcohol. There are red and white dessert wines and, like dry wines, they come from a variety of grape varieties. However, one thing all of these wines have in common is their distinctive sweet, flavorful, rich taste. Whether you’re complimenting your dessert with a sweet wine or enjoying it as dessert in and of itself, California sweet wines are sure to please.
Where to Find the Best Sweet Wines in CA
While California is particularly skilled at producing sweet wines, here are a few of the best and most interesting dessert wines in California.
Vinous / Antonio Galloni - "The 2008 Nightingale Botrytised is a pretty, moderately sweet Sauvignon/Semillon blend laced with apricot, orange marmalade, sweet spices and dried herbs. This medium-bodied, slightly amber dessert wine can be enjoyed alone, with fruit-based desserts and lighter, fresher cheeses."
Wine Spectator - "Elegant and smooth, with a snappy, fresh acidity. Lemon bar, nectarine, apple and Meyer lemon flavors are bright and clean, offering smoke and floral hints."
The Wine Advocate - "The 2002 Mr. K The Noble Man (321 grams per liter of residual sugar and 10.25 grams per liter of acidity) is made from 100% botrytised Chardonnay. Its medium gold color is followed by a wine with honeyed complexity, and huge body, sweetness, and thickness. This effort is never as complex or focused as its siblings, but it is still a phenomenal sweet wine that can stand on its own merits against any great sweet wine made in the world. "
These are just a few of the deliciously satisfying sweet wines you can find from California. While California’s wine production continues to lean toward the dry table wines, its hidden gem of flavor and quality still lies in the rich, aromatic dessert wines that started it all.