UC Davis Sweet Wine Symposium Report

It's almost impossible to imagine today, but a half-century ago sweet and dessert wines in the United States accounted for the majority of wines consumed. Fully two-thirds of all wines were dessert styled wines, including sweet wines made without fortification (the addition of alcohol), as well as Ports and Sherries (albeit of the domestic persuasion), and other fortified wines.

It's easy to sneer at those times because clearly America's passion for wine was fuelled by its sweet tooth, and it's not a pretty world where MD 2020 and Thunderbird far outsell Cabernet. Yes, we are a far more sophisticated bunch today. But while America has learned to love dry wines, it has somehow forgotten that sweet wines can be pretty wonderful too. 

Moreover, one of the unfortunate tendencies of the wine industry is to pretend that, because many wine professionals prefer dry wines over sweet ones, everyone else does too. But that's not true at all. One of the reasons that wine sales historically linger behind cocktail and beer sales is that wine sellers haven't bothered to listen to the people who don't drink wine. For most non-wine drinkers, wine is too bitter, too dry, too tart and, well, just not sweet enough.

But of course plenty of wines are sweet enough; we just don't talk about them enough. The UC Davis Sweet Symposium, which took place on January 12, 2011, was created to offer historical background as well as technical tips to winemakers interested in making sweet wines, but it also took on the issue of sweet wine sales, or lack thereof. Legendary wine expert Darrell Corti began the day with a discourse on sweet wine's once prominent place throughout wine culture, focusing upon its stability in comparison to other styles of wine in a pre-refrigerated world.

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."

In my presentation, I offered a similar perspective. Vinsanto from Santorini is an ancient wine, and is extraordinarily long-lived. Its virtues of deliciousness and stability made its fame throughout the world, though it was in northern Italy that the wine earned the ultimate flattery of imitation. Italian Vin Santo utilized the same grape drying methodology that the producers on Santorini had proven effective, and eventually stole the name as well. But because Santorini is such a dry and windy place, the process can proceed without the massive amounts of sulfur that the Italians utilize.

Master of Wine Tim Hanni's presentation echoed our comments about the past importance of sweet wines. And Tim believes too that the vast majority of people would happily consume sweet wines if only the industry would support those wines, instead of treating sweet wine consumers as somehow uneducated.

"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."

The world's greatest wines for centuries: Tokaji, Madeira, Malaga, Port, Sherry, Constantia, Yquem and other Sauternes, and of course, Vinsanto, are just as compelling today and would be just as universally loved, if only people were given a chance to try them. Their rarity and difficulty of production mean that most are too expensive for average folk, though Vinsanto and others can be perfectly affordable as a restaurant available, wine by the glass feature.

Strangely, restaurants don't bother offering the kinds of dessert wine lists that draw sufficient attention, either from customers or servers. Most restaurants list most of their dessert wines by the bottle only, but few customers want more than a small glass of dessert wine, especially at the end of a long meal. Those restaurateurs evince interest in selling dessert wines, but insist that sales are insufficient to justify opening a bottle of wine. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: nobody orders it because it's not available by the glass, so the restaurateur has "proof" that customers aren't interested.

Worse still, restaurant staff are wholly ignorant of the stability of dessert wines. Sure, your average Chardonnay goes south within a few days of opening, but Vinsanto can last for weeks after being opened, as long as it is refrigerated. And there is nothing quite as magical as the dulcet, honeyed character of Vinsanto, with notes of raisin, fig, cocoa, coffee bean (and dozens more flavors) all with the remarkable racy cleanliness of citrus in the finish. There's really nothing like it, though dessert wines throughout history have emulated and even imitated its character. Now if we can just get restaurants to let people try it.