Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don't Turn Your Nose Up At Sweet Wine

(The following essay first appeared at The New York Cork Report on May 18, 2010.)

The other day, my wife Dominique and I were sipping a lovely, chilled Vouvray Demi-Sec. A fabulous wine we shared over assorted cheeses and some sliced French bread. I especially liked the aged camembert, with its edgey, tangy finish juxtaposed to the sweet white wine. What a combination. I thought to myself. “This is heaven.”

Another one of my favorite such combinations is Sauternes or a good Barsac or even a good sweet Jurancon with foie gras or pate. Maybe a little gooey brie thrown in for good effect, on a nice slice of rustic, crunchy raisin walnut bread. Wow!

So it was with much amusement that I read from a friend recently, “He worried me when he started talking about some sweet white hybrids…” The lifted eye-brow, the sneer of the of one side of his lips, you could read these facial expressions along with the acid that was dripping from his keyboard. He was so serious about wine. Not an uncommon reaction by a wine snob.

But it goes without saying, that New York state did not invent sweet wine. And I would point out that sweet wines remain as popular in Europe as they are here. A short inventory of the sweet wines of Europe includes, sweet rieslings and riesling Ice Wine; Vouvray Demy-Sec; late harvest chardonnay; moscato; Sauternes and Barsac; Tokai; Port; Sherry, and of course sparkling wines ranging from Prosecco to Asti Spumante.

So why are these desirable? Because they are the equivalent of the “AKC bred with papers” vinifera? What makes them better than the good ol’ Franco-American mutt hybrid? And who says the hybrid is a mutt?

A hybrid is a mutt until it becomes Pinotage, or it becomes hip like Norton? Gimme a break!
There are many wonderful, sophisticated sweet wines being made in the United States and New York state that are made from hybrids. Vidal is easily one of the most versatile grapes grown in the U.S. today, for example.

From austere dry table wines (Sakonnet, Thirsty Owl, Knapp, Atwater, etc.) to fabulous semi-sweet wines, to ice wines like Inniskillin, Pellar, Jackson-Triggs, Henry of Pelham, Sakonnet, Hunt Country Vineyards, Pinnacle, Ferrante, Atwater Estate, Fiori Vidal Ice Wine, Casa Larga, Standing Stone, Wagner, and many, many others. Vidal is one of the most popularly grown grapes in North America (and bought, I might add), but you won’t see wine snobs embracing it.


Why is a sweet riesling desirable, but the sweet Vidal or Niagara off-putting to the wine snob? Riesling is serious wine, one must suppose. In the summer time, travel this country, and wines with names like Vidal Blanc, Niagara, and Cayuga are sold in prodigious quantities, and by well-known wineries. They are not all wonderful wines to be sure. But then again I’ve tasted bad rieslings too. However, there are many elegant, off-dry and semi-sweet white wines.

I have seen many big cabernet sauvignon or malbec or tempranillo types (like myself) fall for the occasional Niagara with my own eyes. I love a Parker fruit bomb or a Rioja Gran Reserva as much as the next Pittsburgh-style, black’n’blue extra-thick cut carnivore sitting next to me. But a light, off-dry white? “Pashaw!” the wine snobs sneer, and look heaven-ward, with eyes full of shame, “Forgive them, they know not what they do!” mourn the snobs.

They are way too serious about wine.

Sweet wines, whether sparkling or still, have their place in the wine world. What goes better with a summer soup made from raspberry or blueberry? They are a tremendous compliment to cheeses and baked goods. They are an incredible accompaniment to foie gras and pate. They are great sipping wines. And they are a welcome, fun companion on hot summer days, when big deep dark reds or oaky whites might seem less than at their best.

This summer, why not loosen the shackles of American snobbery, and enjoy a European pleasure, and try a nicely made light sweet white?

Don’t try it with steak or pasta. Don’t try and guzzle it with nachos. But it will be great for patio sipping. Good off-dry whites are great with shellfish, with salads and summer soups, and of course BBQ (some off-dry reds go extremely well with BBQ as well). And of course, my favorite, with cheese. Sneak it, even, if you have to, and have some fun for a change. If you’re not, you’re missing something.