“Delight,” according to the dictionary, means “a source of great pleasure,” but I think there’s more to the word. To me, it connotes exulting in something obviously, incontrovertibly awesome—pleasure leavened with a sense of rightness. It makes me think about climbing the Brooklyn Bridge and catching the morning’s first glimmer in the windows on Front Street, the first two Ramones records, and drinking a good sweet wine. Unlike, say, burgundy, sweet wine requires no adjective-laden tasting notes or displays of connoisseurship—when you taste a delicious one, you know it. It alone manages both intellectual intrigue and child-like elation—sweet wine cuts to the essence of what makes drinking pleasurable, in the same way that a well-placed dish of butter-pecan ice cream can provide more immediate joy than an expertly composed dessert.
The wine that made me care about drinking, the one I remember most vividly, was fortified and sweet. At the tail end of a late dinner, a generous friend pulled out a dusty amber bottle with only the number “1899” stenciled on it in whitewash. The Malmsey Madeira was a few years shy of a century. I didn’t know then that the wine had come from a cluster of Portuguese islands near the Moroccan coast; or that, to protect it from the climactic vagaries of spending months on the ocean, it was exposed to air and left for at least 20 years in a sun-baked attic, a process called estufagemthat makes Madeira perhaps the longest lived of all fermented beverages; or that, by 1899, the phylloxera plague had decimated most of the islands’ vineyards, and the locals had replanted many with sugar cane, relegating the grapes to the past. Not knowing,
I knew the moment I tasted it that I’d remember the Madeira well into dementia.
I nonetheless marveled at the Madeira’s age—it had been born in the same year as Fred Astaire, the one in which Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated and Felix Hoffman patented aspirin, and it occurred to me that the grandchildren of the men and women who picked those Malvasia grapes were, in all probability, dead. But the most unexpected thing about the iodine-colored stuff was just how vibrant it smelled—it combined the intensity and freshness of a newly-fermented wine and the mellowness and depth of an old one. I knew the moment I tasted it that I’d remember the Madeira well into dementia.
If this recollection sounds sentimental, it’s probably because the pleasures of sweet wine have drifted so far out of style as to become nearly an anachronism. Speak (off the record) to anyone in the wine trade, and they will tell you that selling anything with residual sugar in it has become a chore. For many, sweet wines have come to seem thoroughly outdated, reminiscent of the cream sherry likely to be sipped to a Helen Reddy cassette over a canasta game at a Century Village condo, from cordial glasses stamped with upside-down rainbows of lipstick.
Calling them “dessert wines” doesn’t help. Dessert is the least essential part of a meal—Hemingway supposedly once quipped that a man who eats dessert isn’t drinking enough. Another conviction that many are loathe to admit but cling to with a stubborn faith is that sweet wines, like profiteroles or glazed donuts, are fattening.
When I spoke to Kurt Eckert, a wine importer and former beverage director for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant group, he summed
Dessert is the least essential part of a meal—Hemingway supposedly once quipped that a man who eats dessert isn’t drinking enough.
up the situation more bluntly: “Many consumers believe that sweet wine is cheap—reminiscent of things like white Zinfandel and Black Tower—or belongs to their parents’ generation, or is too ‘ethnic.’” he told me. Things were worse than I thought.
It wasn’t always so. A mere century ago, the world’s most sought-after wines were likely to contain at least a share of sweetness, whether Constantia from South Africa’s Western Cape (Jane Austen’s Mrs. Jennings prescribes it for “its healing powers on a disappointed heart”) or Andalusian Malaga. At the banquet near the opening of War and Peace, the Rostovs ply their guests with Madeira, Hungarian Tokaji and Rhine Riesling. Even the champagne they no doubt toasted with would have been far sweeter than the ones we know today. More recently, Iowa-born epicure and cookbook author Richard Olney liked to conclude his unending, intricate suppers—shared in a hilltop cabin in Provence with the likes of Julia Child and Alice Waters—by uncorking an old Sauternes. (You can find the specifics in his erratic but entertaining memoir, Reflexions). And those in the trade with an interest in marketing will tell you that sweet wines still command a meaningful share of sales in places like Russia and the UK.
But what about those of us closer to home, where the Founding Fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira? What can I say that might persuade you to consider a sweet wine?
If you count yourself among the sugarphobic, I would tell you that sweet wines contain the same number of calories as dry ones, and that in any case you will drink far less of them than your Chianti.
The prices of Bordeaux have climbed into custom prosthetics territory, but Sauternes, Europe’s most esteemed sweet wine, costs not much more than it did a decade ago.
I’d point out that they aren’t just for dessert: Eckert suggests pairing sweet whites with a blue cheese or Epoisses—the sweetness and acidity in the wine latches on to the cheese’s creaminess and salt like a mongoose to a cobra. And Montpelier-native Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, who heads the U.S. branch of Sud de France, a trade group that promotes wines from Languedoc-Roussillon, says that drinkers back home pour the region’s orangey, lightly sweet Muscats as an aperitif, often with olives.
I might mention, too, that the neglect piled upon sweet wines has given them at least one advantage—most remain underpriced. While in recent years the prices of the top red Bordeaux have climbed into custom prosthetics territory, the region’s Sauternes, arguably Europe’s most esteemed sweet wine, costs not much more than it did a decade ago. The cost-to-enjoyment ratios of many German Rieslings, Australia’s “sticky” Semillons and Portuguese Moscatels de Setúbal, to name a few others, are even more surprising.
Finally, I‘d argue that as long as a wine contains enough acidity to balance the residual sugar, it can taste as fresh and brisk as a bone-dry Muscadet. By omitting sweet wines, you’re losing out on some of the most vertiginous experiences wine has to offer, the sequins stitched into the Nudie suit of drinking.
If the meaning of a wine resides in the memories it leaves, the sweet ones must be rich as novels. I can recall Taylor’s airy 40-year-old tawny port, which made a table of ordained Buddhists nearly aphasic with laughter and, on a recent birthday, a 1970 Croft, the port still the color of tar, shared on a friend’s roof under the contrails of jets bound for LaGuardia. There was the Mas de L’Avail Maury, smelling of raspberries and black bread, that followed a chicken with cauliflower I roasted for Boris, the one who, years ago, had uncorked the 19th-century Madeira, and the molasses-thick 1979 Toro Albala Pedro Ximenez sherry sipped in a basement-level Ludlow Street bar to salve a breakup, and the half-bottle of Ruster Ausbruch, from Heidi Schröck, split in a snowbound New Hampshire cabin with a friend who had driven all night from Maine.
I remember, too, a cold, damp car trip along Long Island’s North Fork. It was one of those days when nothing seemed to come off as planned and everyone was irritable and gloomy. The last stop was a winery, Paumanok, in Aquebogue, and while the rain beat on the roof we tasted a late-harvest Riesling. It had reached that point of equilibrium that sweet wines sometimes do, where the sweet and tart oscillate indefinitely, unresolved, and on the tongue the Riesling throbbed like the electric bassline on a Meters record. It existed there, the one bright, perfect thing at the end of a desultory afternoon, and we lingered over it for a long time before we got in the car and, contented, turned back toward the city.