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The Sweet Wine Balancing Act
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The Sweet Wine Balancing Act

A measure of sweetness, a measure of acidity.

Quality sweet wines are one of the great indispensable staples of a well-stocked wine cellar or pantry. The fact that such wines are often left to the “dessert” course, or even served as the dessert course, should be regarded as merely a fashionable guideline rather than a firm rule. Thankfully, quality sweet wine remains a vibrant category in the kosher wine market, offering kosher consumers many fabulous choices.

While Manischewitz and related kiddush-style wines are still a popular, if highly particularistic, type of sweet wine, the category is mercifully far more diverse. A quality-focused sweet wine is, simply put, a wine that has been purposefully produced with noticeable amounts of residual sugar so that it tastes sweet on the palate.

“Sweet” is a necessarily inexact term, but generally a wine tastes sweet due to the levels of residual sugar it contains. The actual impact or perception of this residual sugar on one’s palate is largely understood to be significantly influenced by such factors as serving temperature and the relative levels of acidity, tannins and carbon dioxide in the wine. Alcohol, glycerol and high levels of pectins can also present as a noticeably sweet taste.

There are all sorts of methods for producing sweet wine. At the inexpensive end of the quality scale, wine producers can simply add sugar or concentrated grape juice to wine that has been stripped of any ability to evolve or re-ferment. Another option, as is common with port-style wines, is to add alcohol to sweet fermenting grape juice to halt fermentation in its tracks; the added alcohol effectively fortifies the wine against further fermentation. Yet another option is to add sugar to the grape juice prior to fermentation so as to boost the eventual sugar level after fermentation has been stopped by stunning the yeast with sulphur dioxide or by chilling.

There are also methods directed upon the grapes themselves, either while still on the vine, or before the juice has been pressed from the berries. Grapes can, for example, simply be left longer on the vine than would be necessary to produce dry wine. This additional growing period allows the grape’s berries to ripen further and grow naturally richer, promoting higher levels of residual sugar post-fermentation. Grapes can also be deliberately left well past normal ripening on the vine to actually desiccate and shrivel into super-sweet raisins which can then be vinified into sweet wine. An alternative version of this dried-grape approach entails purposefully drying the grapes after they’ve been harvested but before they’ve been vinified. Alternatively, as in ice wine or Eiswein, in conducive cold climates the grapes can be left so long on the vine that they naturally freeze, thereby concentrating the juice without the raisining experience. Such freezing can also be done artificially, if desired.

Far more risky, however, is the practice — a very traditional approach in some wine regions — of waiting in hopes of the development and proliferation of Botrytis cinerea, a common necrotrophic fungal plant pathogen that, under the right conditions, can lead to a beneficial type of rot — known widely as noble rot, as opposed to the far more commonly induced gray rot — that breaks the skin of the grapes, shrivels the berries, concentrates the sugars, and enhances and partially transforms the flavors of the affected grapes. This inherently risky, labor-intensive — and thus expensive — approach of harnessing the capricious Botrytis is central to the production of such premium sweet wines as the best Sauternes from France, the top beerenauslesen and trockenbeerenauslesen of Germany and Austria, and the best Tokaji of Hungary. Though uncommon, under laboratory-like-control conditions, the proliferation of Botrytis can also be artificially induced for this effect — Israel’s Golan Heights Winery very successfully used this method in the past.

However a wine’s sweetness is achieved, the overall success of a sweet wine hinges on the crucial dynamic of achieving a level of balance between the perceived sweetness and the natural acidity. The higher the level of unfermented sugar, the greater the need for counterbalancing acidity to prevent the wine from tasting cloyingly sweet, like syrup. Acidity is, thus, one of the key factors in making a sweet wine enjoyable to consume. Indeed, a comparative tasting of top-notch young sweet wines is far more likely to leave the taster with the impression of excess acidity rather than excess sugar.

Tasting Notes:

Happily, there are many wonderful kosher quality sweet wines readily available. Here is an assortment of current releases to seek out and try:

I would be remiss not to mention the various Moscato wines on the market — while not exactly interchangeable, these all tend to be of a piece. Bartenura Moscato, aka the “blue bottle,” remains the market leader and is reliably good fun. For a change of pace, consider the fun and tasty Contessa Annalisa, Moscato Gold (non-vintage; $12; widely available, including online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370)—this Italian Moscato is sweet, effervescent and refreshing, with clean floral, citrus, and ripe fruit notes.

From California, consider the consistently worthwhile late-harvest wines from Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard. The Herzog, Late Harvest, Orange Muscat, California, 2018 (mevushal; $22; widely available, including at OnlineKosherWine.com, [855] 798-0787) is an enjoyable and pleasing semi-sweet wine with aromas and flavors of mandarin orange, marmalade, passionfruit, lychee sorbet, grapefruit, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, apricot and lemon, with bits of racy ginger, mild honeydew melon, and raisin dancing in and out of focus. The simple but ever-so-pleasant Herzog, Late Harvest, White Riesling, Monterey County, CA, 2017 (mevushal; $22; widely available, including at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale, [888] 759-8466) offers inviting notes of dried apricots, ripe pineapple, and something like baked apple. The Herzog Late Harvest, Zinfandel, Lodi, CA, 2016 (mevushal; $22; widely available, including at OnlineKosherWine.com, [855] 798-0787) is wonderfully intense and aromatic with stone and dark red berry fruits, and just enough balancing acidity to keep it refreshing. The Herzog, Late Harvest, Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg, CA, 2018 (mevushal; $22; widely available, including at Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette St. at East 4th St., [212] 674-7500), a vibrant, luscious, aromatic, fruity yet serious sweet wine, offers delicious notes of pear, honey, peach, apricot, mandarin oranges, mango, custard and a smidgen of candied ginger.

Also from California is the nearly always over-achieving Hagafen, Late Harvest, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2009 (mevushal; $32 for 375ml; available at Suhag Wines & Liquor, 69-30 Main St., Flushing, Queens, [718] 793-6629), which remains vivacious and utterly delightful with notes of honey, orange marmalade, caramelized almonds, mango, dried apricots, candied ginger and citrus, with a long and rich finish. Another California treat is Covenant Wines, Late Harvest Botrytis Chardonnay, Sonoma Mountain, 2016 ($30 for 375ml; widely available, including at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale, [888] 759-8466). Showing remarkable poise and elegance, this delicious nectar offers beautiful botrytised notes of stone fruits, salted caramel, lemons, green apple, dried apricots and honey.

In the often glorious ice wine category, there are currently two offerings from the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada-based Tzafona Cellars. Their Tzafona Cellars, Cold Climate, Vidal Icewine, Niagara Peninsula VQA, 2016 ($32 for 375ml; available at the Wine Library, 586 Morris Ave., Springfield, N.J., [973] 376-0005) offers intensely sweet aromas and flavors of honey, citrus, and stone fruits (apricots and peaches), all with an appealing floral honeysuckle overlay; this vintage could do with a bit more acidity but remains very enjoyable as-is. The Tzafona Cellars, Cold Climate, Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine, 2016 ($52 for 375ml; available at Liquors Galore, 1212 Ave. J, Brooklyn, [718] 338-4166) is even more interesting and slightly better balanced, with mildly stewed, sweet red fruits (strawberry, cherry and cassis), soft tannins and nice acidity. Another great option for natural icewine is the outstanding De La Rosa 613 Vineyards, Vilnius Icewine, Late Harvest Scheurebe, Burgenland, Austria, 2012 (mevushal; $48; available soon) — offering complex, concentrated, and layered notes of acacia, peach, apricots, honey and litchi; with beautiful balance, and an absorbing fruity finish. 

Though something of a cheat in the ice wine category, from Israel comes the always good Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heights Wine, 2017 ($34; widely available, including online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370) — made from gewürztraminer grapes that have been frozen in the winery after harvest, rather than naturally frozen on the vine; this is nonetheless delicious, rich and aromatic with notes of litchi, apricot, peach, citrus and spice, with great balancing acidity and a rewarding, complex finish.

Also, from Israel, is the comparatively simplistic yet deliciously fragrant, floral, fruity and altogether appealing Kinneret Wine Cellars, Muscat Hamburg, Samson, Israel, 2017 (mevushal; $12-15; available, at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale, [888] 759-8466). A significant step-up in quality and price is the Dalton Winery, Anna, Dessert Wine, Traditional Solera Method (non-vintage; mevushal; $45; also available, at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale, [888] 759-8466), this is a solera vatting or bending process of fortified Muscat Alexandria wines. The grapes were left to ripen longer on the vine, harvested, fermented and fortified with neutral spirit to halt fermentation and then aged in oak barrels for at least eight years, with each new vintage being fractionally blended together over time; this delicious, floral and immensely appealing wine exhibits delicate, sweet notes of honeycomb, stone fruits, dried apricots, slightly sour cherries, honeysuckle, and citrus zest, with a long, rich, and full finish.

A variety of pleasingly worthwhile port-style wines have also begun to appear from Israel. Consider, for example, Teperberg, Essence, Fortesse, Samson, 2017 ($42; widely available, including at Columbus Avenue Wines & Spirits, 730 Columbus Ave., [212] 865-7070): offering notes of black cherry, caramelized nuts, candied red and black fruits, raisins, raspberry jam, marzipan, dark chocolate and dried figs, its lively acidity keeps it rich and absorbing. Another lovely option is the Carmel Vintage, Judean Hills, 2007 ($45; widely available, including online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370); this big, velvety petite sirah-based wine is very nicely raisiny, pruny, somewhat toffee-laced, and a touch clumsy, but delicious; lots of chewy tannins, too. The additional notes of spice and nuts adds nicely to the overall effect. The finish is luscious and long. Not the most elegant, but yummy. An Eastern Mediterranean take on the more traditional Portuguese grapes is the Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, T2, 2011 ($20; available at Best Buy Liquors, 1613 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn, [718] 265-4350): made with 69 percent touriga nacional and 31 percent tinta cão, offering notes of cherry, cranberry, black cherry, blueberry, caramel, subtle chocolate and a little spice; shows a little heat on the finish. A touch more acidity would be welcome, but it remains very satisfying.

There are many kosher Sauterne options available currently; all are rewarding, and here is one of the more affordable ones: Château Piada, Sauternes (kosher edition), 2016 ($65; available online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370): Still fairly embryonic at this stage, but delicious, layered with honeysuckle, lychee, orange blossom, honeyed stone and citrus fruits, ripe apricots, dried mango, toasted white bread, marzipan, hazelnuts, white pepper, cardamom, cloves and fresh cream; fresh acidity; unctuous mouthfeel. Lovely now but will be even better with another three to five years of maturation, and then should continue to improve a few years beyond that. 

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