Sweet Wines Get Their Due

Sweet PA Wines

We spend a lot of time here at the PA Wine Land Post talking about dry wines. And while the rising production and quality of dry wines in Pennsylvania has certainly been an exciting narrative over the last few decades, the fact remains that sweet wines are not only wildly popular in the state (and across the country) but are also an area where many local wineries shine.

Just ask Scott Zoccolillo, wine director at Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (and recent drinking buddy of Olympian Johnny Weir).

“Our second best-selling wine by the glass is a sweet wine,” he explains. “Our best-selling wine by the glass is obviously Cabernet Sauvignon, being a steakhouse. Our second best selling is Brachetto, which is a red Italian grape that’s essentially red Moscato. It’s a nice gateway to get people into wines. I started off with sweet wines.”

According to a great recent story in Edible Jersey, his observations hold up. Writer Robin Shreeves (follow her Instagram for lots of excellent local wine content) quotes a 2018 national survey conducted by Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.

“Forty-five percent of those surveyed like their wines to be semi-sweet, compared to the 36 percent who like their wines dry. Semi-sweet, smooth, and fruity were the top three things the average American wine consumer said they prefer in a wine.”

When it comes to sweet wines, Zoccolillo has a few favorite grape varietals that thrive in Pennsylvania: Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, and Riesling. In addition, many hybrids and native grapes produce fruity, enticing wines with high residual sugar. These grapes are hardy in the field and exciting to work with for winemakers.

Even for people who typically reach for dry wines, there is a time and a place for something sweet. Zoccolillo’s two favorite moments for a sweet or off-dry wine are with high-acid dishes (ceviche, salad with a particularly zippy vinaigrette) and with sweet desserts. In both situations, the wine will help bring out the subtleties of each bite dish by softening, slightly, the dominant pucker or sweetness. Here’s a key tip for pairing wine with dessert: Make sure the wine is sweeter than the dish, otherwise the wine will taste bitter.

As implied above, sweet wines are all about balance. The most exciting and well-made sweet wines have plenty of acidity to counteract the sugar. As Zoccolillo says, “You wouldn’t make lemonade without sugar — it would be too tart.” That interplay of sweetness and acidity will taste refreshing.

“It’s super palate-cleaning,” he adds. “When you go to these [big wine] tastings, so many people tend to gravitate around the Riesling table because it kind of refreshes your palate.”

That sensation is another reason people love dessert wines so much. After a meal paired with dry wines, that shift revs up your tired tastebuds.

Sweet wines sometimes have a reputation for being cheap or poorly made. But that’s unfair and typically untrue (hey, the same could be said for many dry wines). The reason these wines can often be found at a more accessible price point is because they are generally less expensive to make. Hybrid and native grapes are less finicky (and therefore less labor, time, and cost-intensive) to grow. Plus, a lot of sweet wines are sold right after fermentation to maximize their bright pop — the fact that they don’t need to be stored and aged also reduces costs. But wineries are putting just as much thought and care into these sweet wines, striving to make something their customers will love.

On the flip side, some of the most expensive and special wines in the world are actually sweet, including Port-style wines and Ice Wines, which are made from hand-picked grapes and only when the conditions allow. Some sweet wines such as Riesling also age incredibly well since the sugar helps stabilize and preserve the wine. In fact, these sweet wines are some of the few white wines that benefit from time in the cellar.

In the end, whether you typically drink sweet or dry wines, the key is to keep tasting.

“Don’t get stuck in your rut,” says Zoccolillo. “Try something new. You just might surprise yourself.”

Here are some sweet wine grape varietals that thrive in Pennsylvania:

Catawba: Catawba has mild berry and fresh fruit notes, with a bright, smooth finish. Catawba wines made in the “methode Champenoise” — which produces sparkling wines like those made in Ohio almost 200 years ago — tend to have floral aromas and muted, fruity undertones.

Cayuga: These white wines are crisp and bright, with powerful flavors of lemon, apple, peach, grapefruit, and lemon. When picked later in the fall, Cayuga wines are sweeter, fuller-bodied, and begin to manifest notes of ripe pineapple, honey, and hints of foxiness.

Concord: The grapes are a gorgeous dark purple and the flavor is “classic grape” — most of the Concord crop becomes grape juice or grape jelly. It is also grown extensively as a backyard crop. Families across Pennsylvania pluck fruit from these attractive vines to make pies and jam.

Delaware: Delaware wines showcase flavors of candied apples, strawberries, honey, and grapefruit. The signature aroma is deeply grape-y and slightly floral. (Speaking of aroma, Delaware is prized as a table grape in South Korea and Japan specifically for its fragrance.) The wines typically have medium body and high acidity, which helps balance any sweetness.

Gewürztraminer: The varietal’s signature aroma is lychee. Though that tropical fruit’s flavor is tart and bright, the smell is a bit softer, recalling sweet rose and ripe pear. Other notes on the nose include summer melon, mango, grapefruit, ginger, honey, and spice. When it comes to the taste, fresher flavors — lime, lemongrass — come to the forefront, even as the wines showcase relatively low acidity.

Niagara: You can expect aromas of candied lemon and floral jasmine. A medium-bodied white, the tasting notes evoke fresh grapes and tropical fruit, with a moderately acidic finish. The varietal can be made in both a sweet and off-dry style. It has a pure, fruity, long finish.

Port-style wine: Most of the Port-style wine made in Pennsylvania is ruby Port, which means it is bottled after only a few years of barrel-aging and still boasts some fresh fruit character. When you crack open a bottle, expect flavors of raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate sauce.

Riesling: Riesling can be described as crisp, juicy, floral, minerally, refreshing, complex, stony, waxy, oily, and/or fruity. Some flavors you can expect in the traditional tall, slender bottle include citrus, green apple, peach, apricot, mango, guava, honey, rose blossom, cut green grass, and petrol.

Seyval Blanc: Seyval Blanc tends to exhibit higher acid and some minerality, with notes of citrus, green apple, hay, and melon. Winemakers have a lot of room for creativity with this varietal, as it can be made into sparkling wine, aged in oak, and employed in blends (often with Chardonnay).

Steuben: While the black-skinned grape is often used to produce red wine, it is becoming increasingly popular in a rosé or blush style. These pink vintages exhibit berry notes and whiffs of cinnamon. Like Catawba, Steuben is a great option for White Zinfandel/blush lovers seeking something new.

Traminette: Like its parent Gewürztraminer, Traminette is a versatile, beguiling grape. It exudes spicy and floral aromas, alongside flavors of lychee, apricot, and honey. Thanks to its distinctive perfume, all it takes is a taste of this varietal to get hooked.

Vidal Blanc: Be on the lookout for bright, pure fruit flavors, and aromas of grapefruit, pineapple, and pear. When aged in wood, notes of orange rind, vanilla, and almond join the party. The varietal has high acid levels, so sometimes winemakers leave a fair amount of residual sugar to balance the flavors.

Vignoles: Like other cold-weather whites, these are highly aromatic wines. When off-dry, it showcases pineapple, honey, and grapefruit peel. When semi-sweet, it recalls baked pineapple, apricot, ripe apple, and orange marmalade. Vignoles can also be aged in oak, giving Chardonnay lovers something to get excited about. The varietal is increasingly popular as an ice wine. Late-season Vignoles grapes produce concentrated, honeyed juice with a pinch of sweetness and a backbone of acidity for balance. When you grab a bottle of this dessert wine, expect notes of citrus, apricot, papaya, and, of course, pineapple.