Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Production Research
CA vintners consider producing sweet wine

February 1, 2011  By University of California

muscatgrapesFebruary 1, 2011, Davis,
CA – Dry chardonnays, cabernets and merlots dominate wine sales in the United
States, but experts believe sweet wine could make a comeback, creating new
opportunities for farmers and vintners.

February 1, 2011, Davis,
CA – Dry chardonnays, cabernets and merlots dominate wine sales in the United
States, but experts believe sweet wine could make a comeback, creating new
opportunities for farmers and vintners.

People who enjoy soda,
chocolate and candy are stepping up to the bar and ordering expensive sweet
cocktails. Flavored martinis, spirits mixed with soft drinks or energy drinks,
and fruit juice blends have become popular cocktail choices. California wine
producers are beginning to realize consumers’ desire for refreshing,
easy-to-drink libations isn’t being met by their wine.

Muscat grapes  

“We haven’t been having
an honest conversation about sweetness and what people like,” says master
sommelier, wine consultant and author Doug Frost. “We’ve acted like sweet wine
is what a beginner starts with and then you graduate to dry wines.”

Frost spoke at a
conference sponsored by the University of California to explore new production
and marketing options for sweet dessert and dried fruit wines.

Sommelier Tim Hanni,
another conference speaker, has studied consumers’ beverage preferences,
attitudes and behavior. Some people, he said, simply prefer sweet tastes, but
the wine industry has disenfranchised these consumers.

“Go into a white
tablecloth restaurant and order white zinfandel and see how you are treated,”
Hanni said. “We are killing that potential market, calling them stupid,
uneducated and immature.”

In fact, sweet wines
have traditionally been considered the finest wines in the world, according to
Darrel Corti, a wine and food expert who was inducted into the Vintners Hall of
in 2008. In antiquity, all the famous wines were sweet, he said. Sweet
wines are more difficult to produce, but because of the higher sugar content,
are more stable than table wine.

“In Lachish, in Israel,
a pottery container bearing an inscription from the Iron Age (1800 BC) actually
says, ‘wine made with dried black grapes,’” Corti said.

Sweet wine has a
distinguished history in the U.S. Around the time the country was founded,
sweet Madeira wine was imported by the barrel from Madeira, a Portuguese island
350 miles west of Morocco. Madeira wine was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and
it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, said
wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent. It’s said that George Washington drank a
pint a day and Betsy Ross sipped Madeira as she stitched the first American

Since America was the
primary market for Madeira, U.S. Prohibition nearly destroyed the country’s
wine industry in 1920; it was never able to recover fully. Sweet wines – such
as port, sherry and sauternes – dominated U.S. wine consumption for 20 years
after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, according to historian James Lapsley of
the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Davis Department of Viticulture and
. Its popularity peaked with 70 per cent of the market share in 1952.
But in the 1970s, table wine quality improved and sweet wine came to be
perceived as old fashioned or skid row, Lapsley said. Since then, its
popularity rode a downward slope, going as low as two per cent of the wine
market share in 2000. Lapsley, a former commercial winemaker, however, has high
hopes for the future of sweet wine.

“There is a market for
sweet wine,” he said. “But the wine must be high quality, needs to display
personality, it needs to have soul.”

UC Cooperative Extension
viticulture farm advisor in Mendocino County, Glenn McGourty, believes a small
glass of good dessert wine is the best way to end a meal.

“I always encourage
people to try it,” McGourty said. “A lot of people say they don’t like sweet
wine. Then they try it and realize they do. People are usually pleasantly

Many sweet and dessert
wines are made from grape juice with sugar concentrated by partial drying,
freezing, botrytis infection and late harvesting, according to UC viticulture
specialist Matthew Fidelibus, a conference organizer.

Fidelibus researches
wine grape cultivars best suited for the San Joaquin Valley of California at
the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Parlier, where
the weather is quite different from the storied wine production locales in Napa
and Sonoma counties.

Fidelibus’ interest in
sweet wine was piqued in 2008 by an unplanned, but fortuitous experiment with
Diamond muscat raisin grapes. Fidelibus was researching a labour-saving process
for drying raisins, called dried-on-the-vine. Instead of putting grapes on
paper trays between vineyard rows, the producer cuts the grapes’ stems and
leaves the clusters to dry in the canopy, where they can later be harvested

Sometimes, however, cool
temperatures early in the fall prevent the grapes from drying adequately. Such
was the case with the Diamond muscat grapes. The weather that year left
Fidelibus with a supply of partially dried, withered grapes. Fidelibus shipped
them to enologists in Davis to be made into wine.

“It was really delicious
sweet wine,” Fidelibus said. “It started me thinking, maybe we should be
studying grapes intended be dried and made into wine to offer another
opportunity for smaller local vintners to produce a product with a higher value
than the products we have now.”

There is still a great
deal of experimentation necessary to expand the valley sweet wine industry,
such as which grapes are ideal, under what conditions should they be grown and
how to treat those grapes after they have been dried. Fidelibus hopes to add
ancient Greek winegrape varieties – such as Assyrtiko and Athiri – to the
collection of fruit he is growing for observation at Kearney.

“I think the Greek wines
are very interesting,” Fidelibus said. “The way the grapes are dried is similar
to the way raisins are dried here. Farmers are familiar with that kind of process.
And the wines are very distinctive.”

Among the participants
at the sweet wine seminar were Dinuba farmer Tory Torosian and his sons Tory
Jr. and Sarkis. The Torosians cultivate a diversity of specialty fruit on an
80-acre farm at the foot of Smith Mountain. They sell their produce directly to
consumers at San Francisco and Fresno farmers’ markets. Sarkis, currently a
junior at Dinuba High School, is planning to major in enology at Fresno State
or UC Davis and dreams of eventually producing a special sweet wine from grapes
grown on the family farm.

“Those are the kind of
people who would be able to do something like this,” Fidelibus said. “It
wouldn’t make sense for them to make regular table wine. That’s readily
available. These would be handmade, top quality wines that demand a premium

Such a specialty product
corresponds with the Old World custom of sharing an exquisite sweet wine with
guests, a practice described by Wine Hall of Famer Darrell Corti at the sweet
wine seminar.

“They are used as
welcome drinks,” he said. “They indicate your standing in the household when
they are served to you. The glass is always small, but it may be refilled
often. They show the esteem the producer has for you. Table wine is for
consumption. Sweet wines, especially the natural sweet ones, are for
celebration. We should look at them in that light.”

Print this page


Stories continue below