Making the case for sweet wines, and not just for dessert

Making the case for sweet wines, and not just for dessert

They’ve traditionally been stigmatized by the wine industry — even though people like them.

As much as some hate to admit it, Americans like sweet wines. It helps explain why some of the most popular red table wines sold in the U.S. carry 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, “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,” Hanni 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, Oregon, 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.

“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 are a few of the top sweet wines from Pacific Northwest competitions in the past 12 months.

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% residual sugar and 18% 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.

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% 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 icewine. 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% 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, 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% 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 for best of show.

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