Sweet-toothed Americans may down soft drinks with abandon, but sweet wines have not aroused the same enthusiasm. Even some of the experts are reserved about these wines, especially about matching them with food. Witness these remarks:
"Rich desserts and sweet wines are almost impossible to balance, and sate too soon even if they can be brought into harmony"--Bob Thompson in "The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines" (Simon and Schuster: 1985).
"I have a confession to make: I'm not very enthusiastic about matching desserts with a sweet wine"--Kevin Zraly in "Windows on the World Wine and Food Book" (Sterling: 1986).
With that kind of publicity, dessert wines would seem doomed. But that is not the case. In recent months, the wines have drawn increasing media attention. And serious wine makers have come out of the cellar with a raft of interesting products.
In the forefront is Andrew Quady, who produces only sweet wines (Ports and Muscats) at his winery in Madera. "Our sales are increasing--have been for some number of years," Quady said. He attributes the apparent decline in dessert wine sales to the weeding out of "cheap, sweet, high-alcohol wines that people drank mainly for the alcohol."
In December, 1981, Quady published the first issue of the Dessert Wine Digest, a semiannual newsletter. In the February, 1985 issue, he spoke out in behalf of serving wine with dessert: "When successfully done, the sensory result is really wonderful. . . . Once one experiences a great dessert complemented by a dessert wine, it is obvious that (the) combination affords a level of enjoyment which cannot be approached by desserts alone or with coffee."
Quady supports that statement by including recipes in the newsletter and by attaching recipe tags to his two sweet Muscat wines, Essensia and Elysium. Essensia buyers can learn to make a chocolate pudding in the style of Madame DuBarry, while Elysium fanciers receive the formula for a chocolate cream cake.
Desserts aside, sweet wines are pleasant to drink by themselves, as one would drink a liqueur. Or they can accompany cheeses or nuts in place of a rich dessert.
Sweet wine is often a more accurate term than dessert wine, which is legally restricted in its meaning. According to Wendell Lee, counsel for the Wine Institute in San Francisco, a wine must contain more than 14% alcohol but not in excess of 24% alcohol to be labeled a dessert wine. This is the standard of identity regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
In popular terminology, a dessert wine is simply any very sweet wine that might be served with a dessert or as a dessert in itself. Some of the sweet wines produced today actually are lower in alcohol than dry wines designed to accompany a meal.
To introduce this category of wines, a Times Food department panel tasted a random sample of California sweet wines that are either on the market now or will soon be released. Ports and Sherries were excluded, since they merit consideration on their own.
The 12 wines reviewed included several late harvest wines, some novel experiments and a Muscat wine that has not yet been released. Prices ranged from $1.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle of Muscat wine purchased at a discount store to $25 for a bottle of late harvest Sauvignon Blanc half that size.
The goal was not to choose the 12 top California dessert wines but to draw attention to worthy members of a class that is often overlooked. The wines are listed in alphabetical order according to winery. Each is accompanied by its winery retail price and bottle size.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Muscat Canelli 1985, 375 milliliters, $10.
Randall Grahm, the wine maker at this Santa Cruz vineyard, has engaged in some fascinating experiments in his attempts to emulate the French vin de paille, a sweet wine that is made from grapes dried on straw mats.
Grahm had the grapes for his 1984 Muscat Canelli dried in a fruit dryer. For the 1985 wine, he took the unfermented juice to an evaporator in Madera. That treatment concentrated the juice until it became "so sweet it hurt your teeth," he said.
Midway during fermentation, Grahm blended the Muscat Canelli with 19% Pinot Blanc to temper the sugar and add other flavor components. The result is a luscious golden wine with tropical tones that matches well with lychees or other mellow-tasting fruit and with simple desserts. The alcohol content is a low 10.35%, but the sugar is a high 20%.
Although his goal is to produce wines similar to those of the Rhone Valley in France, Grahm switched to the style of the German Eiswein (ice wine) with his 1986 Muscat Canelli. The German wine is made of juice pressed from naturally frozen grapes. Grahm's alternative was a freezer in Watsonville.