The Case for More Sweet Wine

International symposium explores production challenges and sales opportunities

by Jon Tourney
sweet wine
Importer Bartholomew Broadbent (left) and wine educator Vasco Magalhaes of Sogrape Vinhos of Portugal discussed Porto and Madeira wines.
Davis, Calif.—Consumption and sales of sweet and dessert wines in the United States are at a historical low point as a percentage of overall wine sales, but some industry experts believe there is potential for expanding market share in this category by re-educating and re-introducing consumers to high-quality products that are well balanced and properly marketed.

A symposium Jan. 12 at the University of California, Davis (UCD), presented by the Robert Mondavi Institute, explored the issue. Titled "Sweet, Dessert and Dried Fruit Wines: A World View," it provided a historical overview of sweet and dessert wines, presented styles and production methods, and examined consumer issues along with potential opportunities for new products and markets.

With a lineup of international authorities and California producers as presenters, the symposium was organized and moderated by UCD viticulture extension specialist Dr. Matthew Fidelibus, with assistance from Mendocino and Lake County Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist and Wines & Vines columnist Glenn McGourty, and wine retailer and authority (and Vintners Hall of Fame inductee) Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers Market in Sacramento. 

Domination and decline

Providing perspective, Corti explained, "Historically, sweet wines have been considered to be among the finest wines in the world because they were stable, had good longevity, they often required more processing and aging, and they were produced in locations with a history of tradition and practices in place."

Before modern technology and refrigeration, the best way to increase wine stability was to increase the sugar content in the must. Sun-drying grapes after harvest to increase sugar content is one of the oldest methods of making sweet and dessert wines. Corti noted that Italy continues to make about 43 types of "passito"-style dessert wines from dried grapes. Vin Santo, for instance, is made in Tuscany from harvested grapes hung in attics or rafters to concentrate sugar and flavors.

Corti said the symposium should give California growers and winemakers “a reason to look at potentially new types of products that can be produced here with something we have an abundance of—the sun."  

Other methods of dessert winemaking include: Production with later harvest Botrytis-infected grapes; addition of high-alcohol grape spirits for fortified wines that retain sweetness such as Port, Madeira, Malaga and Sherry; and ice wines produced with late harvested grapes frozen on the vine to concentrate sugar and flavor.

UCD adjunct associate professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology Dr. Jim Lapsley, a former commercial winemaker, discussed the history of dessert wine production and consumption in California. U.S. tax laws in the late 1800s favored fortified wine production, and it became the cheapest form of alcohol. Dessert wines accounted for about 40% to 50% of total California production from 1900 until Prohibition. These included many California products that used European names, such as Sherry, Port, Muscatel, Madeira, Tokay and Malaga.

Dessert and fortified wines dominated wine production even more after Prohibition ended, and in 1951 accounted for nearly 90% of the tonnage and dollar value of California wines. They also dominated U.S. consumption from repeal of Prohibition into the 1960s, peaking about 1950 when the category accounted for 70% of all wine consumption, but dropped to 24% in 1970 and to 2% in 2000.

Dessert wine consumption decreased as table wine quality improved in the late 1960s and 1970s with better technology and winemaking, and the introduction of new varietals and plant material. At the same time, dessert wine production, which was generally not high quality, remained the same and gained a poor reputation. Dessert and fortified wines were associated with "skid row" wines, and lost popularity. 

Master of Wine Tim Hanni echoed comments about the past importance and consumption of sweet wines. He believes there is a significant market of sweet wine drinkers who have been turned off by wine education and marketing that emphasizes dry wines as superior quality and looks down upon consumers of White Zinfandel and other sweet wines.

These consumers have migrated to other beverages such as soft drinks, lighter beers and mixed drinks. "Sweet wine drinkers are not dead, they are alive and well and sipping sweet cocktails," Hanni said.  He added, "There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won't let them." He suggested "a massive re-education."

Lapsley and Hanni noted that consumers like sweetness. It is a natural physiological preference for many. The number of sweet food and beverage products on the market indicates a potentially huge market. People with sweet taste preferences generally do not like dry, tannic wines.

Lapsley summarized, "There is a market for sweet wines, but they have to be high quality, they need to display personality, they need to captivate and they need to have soul."

Challenges and opportunities
Speakers throughout the day discussed the challenges in producing and selling dessert wines. Production of quality wines in the styles of Port and Sherry by traditional methods can be labor intensive and time consuming, with inventory tied up for years in aging cellars. In general, table wine production is completed faster, and gets to market sooner; it allows better efficiencies of scale for larger volume production, and better economics. Corti pointed out, "It's the age of these wines that makes the quality, not the grape, not the location, and that's harder for corporate wine production operations to justify. We have too many bean counters in the wine business."

Master of Wine and Master Sommellier Doug Frost discussed the Vinsanto wines produced on the Greek island of Santorini, where winemaking dates back nearly 5,000 years. The primary grape in Vinsanto is Assyrtiko (minimum 51%) along with Athiri and Aidani, all ancient white grape varieties native to Greece.

Harvested grapes are sun-dried on mats for up to 14 days, and wine is aged a minimum of 24 months in oak. Santorini is a warm, dry climate. Grapes retain high acidity that remains in the wine, with pH as low as 2.8, well balanced with sweetness. "These wines are probably close to what was consumed 2,000 to 3,000 years ago," Frost said.

He noted that Vinsanto can be rich and intense, like other types of sweet wines, and is usually consumed in small quantities. While small quantity consumption challenges sweet wine sales, Frost pointed out a positive factor: "Wine bars and restaurants should embrace these wines for sales by the glass, because they remain stable once the bottle is opened." Another challenge to Santorini vineyards is that real estate values for development and tourist facilities on the island threaten the long-term future of grapegrowing. 

Vasco Magalhaes, a Portuguese wine educator with Porto producer Sogrape Vinhos, provided an overview of Porto production history, regulations and practices in the Douro region of Portugal, one of the oldest delineated wine regions. Douro producers have made changes to improve operational efficiency and quality, such as robotic lagar equipment to replace the traditional human-foot grape stomping.

Newer vineyards are planted in varietal blocks in locations best suited to quality production of each individual variety, rather than intermixed as in the past. The Porto Wine Institute approved a new Porto category in 2009, a Rosé Porto, which will go to market sooner. Magalhaes said, "In Portugal, we're trying to introduce more young people to Porto, encouraging its use in cocktails, and promoting it with cheese and chocolate."

Bartholomew Broadbent, son of Michael Broadbent and CEO of Broadbent Selections Inc., imports Porto and Madeira to the U.S. and also produces wines from Portugal under the Broadbent brand. He discussed how Madeira is the most traditional American wine, invented by Americans in the 1700s.

Ships sailing from Europe to America would stop at the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal and load up wine to sell in America. During the voyage, the wines would heat up and obtain the "madeirized" character now associated with the wine. Today, this is obtained by production methods that heat up the wine in tanks to 115°F for a minimum of three months. Broadbent said Prohibition wiped out the Madeira market in the U.S. His job in 1987 was to reintroduce the wine to America.

Broadbent said, "You can open a bottle of Madeira and keep it as long as you like without losing quality." He also noted, "Although they are sweet wines, they have a dry finish, so you can have Madeira with any dessert, even those with citrus components."

Broadbent said that the market for Port today is flat. "I think Port suffers today due to the higher alcohol content of today's table wines. With many table wines at 15% being consumed during dinner, consumers don't want to drink higher alcohol wines at dessert," he said. 

California products and challenges
Much of the quality sweet/dessert wine production in California is done in small quantities as special projects by winemakers for tasting room and direct sales. These include port-style fortified wines (sometimes blends of Portuguese varieties or single varieties such as Zinfandel), Muscat dessert wines, and late harvest wines.

Quady Winery in Madera specializes in sweet and dessert wines that include port-style wines, Orange and Black Muscats, Vermouth, infused sweet wines, and proprietary blends. With annual production of 50,000 cases, it is also one of the few U.S. wineries producing dessert wines in quantities for national distribution. Winemaker Michael Blaylock said some of the winery's products have come about by accident, and many other products have been attempted and never made it to market.

He emphasized quality: "Sweet wines in the past have been too sweet and not balanced." He said "the cocktail craze" has helped Quady, as some of its products can be mixed into cocktails. To expand market, he suggested educating restaurant staffs about dessert wines and getting them to present dessert and dessert wine menus simultaneously with suggestions. Many sweet wines can be successfully paired with main courses, and they are not all high in alcohol. Quady's Electra wines are as low as 4% alcohol.

Quady recently released a new product called "Purple" made from the grape variety Sunbelt, a cross bred at the University of Arkansas with Concord parentage. It is only sold at the tasting room currently; Blaylock said it is most popular with consumers under 35. He described the flavor as "Jolly Rancher grape candy." Blaylock advised, "If you're doing something new or unusual, accentuate the interesting and unique things about it.”

Winemaker Greg Graziano produces four brands at 30,000-case Graziano Family of Wines in Mendocino County. He has made late harvest Botrytised wines from Chenin Blanc, Riesling and other varieties. He said, "In Mendocino County, we grow a lot of varieties prone to Botrytis. Many of these vineyards are near rivers and creeks that give the needed humidity to produce wines similar to Loire Valley late harvest wines."

But he said Botrytis growth cannot be depended upon every year. He also produces Moscato as a sweet table wine under his Enotria label, and said this variety is now very popular, in part due to its mention in a popular rap music song.

Another Mendocino County winemaker, Brad Holstine at 40,000-case Husch Vineyards described how the winery had started a new vineyard practice to produce late harvest Gewürztraminer. Holstine explained, "To hedge our bets, we're experimenting with cane cutting when the grapes reach peak sugars, but before the rains. We identify late harvest blocks, cut canes so the fruit is no longer tied to the vine, but leave it to hang on the trellis to retain sugar and get Botrytis growth." In 2009, the canes were cut Oct. 10 and the fruit picked on Oct. 29. The finished wine had 11.6% alcohol and 12.6% residual sugar.

Bonny Doon Vineyard president and winemaker Randall Grahm has experimented with many dessert wine projects, including with fruit other than grapes, with varying success. Two current releases are from the Beeswax Vineyard in Arroyo Seco, Monterey County: "Vinferno," made from Roussanne and Grenache Blanc harvested and then air-dried in the vineyard to concentrate sugar and flavor; and "Le Val Des Anges" made from 100% Botrytised Roussanne. Grahm believes Botrytis brings "an element of complexity" to make a higher quality dessert wine. Bonny Doon (20,000 cases) has experimented with ways to introduce Botrytis to vineyards, but none have succeeded as well as natural conditions.

Canada embraces ice wine 
Dr. Debbie Inglis, director and researcher at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University in Ontario, Canada discussed the challenges of "extreme winemaking" with ice wine production and recent work and research to improve production and quality. Canada has embraced ice wine with regulations and quality standards from the Vintners Quality Alliance of Ontario. Canada has produced ice wines since the 1980s, and is now the world's largest producer.

About 80% of Ontario ice wines are made with the hybrid grape Vidal, 15% with Riesling, and 5% with Cabernet Franc. Grapes must be frozen at a minimum of minus 8°C. in the vineyard, and kept at this temperature during pressing. Juice must be a minimum of 35°Brix.

Inglis said, "Pressing grapes while frozen is a challenge. The berries are hard as marbles, and we need really high-pressure presses." Most producers use hydraulic basket presses operating at maximum pressure of 350 bar for the first hour, and press cycles are usually two hours. In most cases, the frozen cake must be broken up and pressed a second time.”

Fermentation is a challenge because yeasts don't grow well due to high sugar levels, and stress can lead to unwanted levels of acetic acid. A focus of Inglis' research has been on yeast stress during ice wine fermentation.

She advised: Keep juice sugar levels below 42° Brix; use enough yeast (about 2 to 2.5 times the amount used in table wine fermentations); add micronutrients to rehydration water for yeast and allow the yeasts time to get used to the concentrated sugar levels in the juice. Inglis said fermentations typically last six to eight weeks, but can last up to four months. The final alcohol can range from 7% to 14.9%, but is typically from 10% to 11%

Research studies indicate that different harvest times, and allowing the grapes to hang through multiple freeze and thaw cycles will affect the flavor profile. There are more than 20 odor active compounds in Riesling and Vidal ice wines; many increase in concentration with later harvest dates.
Currently no comments posted for this article.