The Other Side of Sweet (Sweet Wines)

#167 – March 18, 2011 (Purim Satire)

For the six years that I have been writing this newsletter, I have always had one primary goal – to introduce as many people as possible to the pleasures of fermented grape juice. I try and achieve this by eliminating the snobbery and mystery behind the delightful world of wine and presenting wines in “regular” terminology. Throughout these six years I have been steadfast in my belief that, while there may be professional criteria for what constitutes a good or bad wine in the eyes of a wine maker or wine critic, for each individual person, a great wine is the one such person enjoys. These wines are the ones you should drink, regardless of what anyone else suggests, myself included.

While this newsletter’s primary audience always has been and will continue to be, both the up and coming wine aficionado and the sophisticated wine drinker; thinking about Purim, I realized that, while obviously not readers of this newsletter, thousands of wine lovers out there, passionate about their preferred vino, have been neglected on these pages for years and I say – no more!

I recently read a number in intriguing articles (and posted them on my Twitter account @yossieuncorked) relating to people’s preference for sweeter wines and how the wine “professionals” seem to insist that dry and tannic wines are the only real wines. Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine and longtime nemesis of conventional wine wisdom is railing against wine-education which pushes dry wines on consumers who would be happy to drink sweet and semi-sweet wines if only the wine professionals would let them. Even I have been guilty of this on occasion, when discussing how to get non wine-drinkers into wine, by suggesting a number of dry red wines that were just a little “less dry”.

The one exception to the superiority of dry red wine is sophisticated dessert wines like Sauternes (including the greatest wine on earth – Chateau d’Yquem) and Port, of which there are some great kosher versions which have already been discussed extensively on these pages. However, there are a multitude of sweet and semi-sweet wines, adored by a substantial part of the kosher wine drinking community which have not, to date, been given their due on these pages and whose time, like Queen’s Esther’s, has come to finally shine. I am obviously not talking about sacramental or Kiddush wines, a special category of sweet wines revered in its own right and about whom I wrote last year, but rather wines like the beloved Moscato D’Asti from Bartenura, the sublime White Zinfandel and Jeunesse from Baron Herzog. So in honor of Purim (and in tribute to DG), I now present to you – “The other side of sweet!”

One of the most prestigious examples of these wines is Moscato D’Asti, a sparkling white wine made from the Moscato Bianco grape and produced mainly in the north-western province of Italy – Asti (but also in the near-by regions of Alessandria and Cuneo). A typically sweet and low-alcohol wine, it is revered by all for its lightness, great food-paring and delectable sweetness. A similar wine, Asti Spumante, is produced in the same area from the same grape. Probably the best kosher example of this wine is made by the venerable producer Bartenura, who have a long history steeped in excellence. Their Moscato D’Asti, cloaked in its easily recognizable regal blue bottle, is one of the most popular kosher wines in America and fabulous (see my tasting note below). This Moscato D’Asti was clearly what the Rambam (one of the world’s true Renaissance men (prior to the Renaissance itself) intended when insisting on quality wine for any religious occasion. Another excellent wine from Bartenura is their Malvasia which is great with any food and a delight on its own.

In addition to Moscato D’Asti, many wines of this genre are made from variations of the Muscat grape, considered by some to be the oldest domesticated grape variety. This wine is so old that theories abound that almost all grapes used in fine table wine today are descended from the Muscat variety. Another prestigious example of the Muscat grape comes in the form of Black Muscat (also commonly referred to as Black Hamburg), a cross between the Schiava Grossa and Muscat of Alexandria grape varieties. These wines are typically highly aromatic, have a beautiful deep rich color and are usually very sweet and viscous, all highly desirable qualities for a sophisticated wine. I have reviewed a delicious example of this wine below.

Yet another proud member of this family of wine is the semi-sweet wine which affords the luxury of complex sophistication with sufficient drinkability. The grandmother of these wines is Emerald Riesling which for years dominated the palate of the Israeli wine consumers before snobbery and elitism took over (in the form of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot and other more mundane grapes). Growing up in Israel, my palate remembers with great fondness many of these Emerald Riesling wines including fantastic examples from Carmel and Binyamina. Today another member of this family is rearing its noble head – the semi-sweet red wine. Gary Vaynerchuk thinks that this type of wine has a huge market potential and, in one of his shows, posited that the taste profile of the semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon – Jeunesse, from Baron Herzog could become of America’s leading sellers if it didn’t suffer from the kosher stigma. I have reviewed this incredible wine below as well. Other classic examples of a semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon well-worth seeking out are Layla and Byblos – each a prestigious winery in its own right.

The last member of this family is probably the most famous and widely revered by wine-lovers everywhere – the White Zinfandel. While most readers of this newsletter are undoubtedly familiar with the brash and tannic older brother – “regular” (or Red) Zinfandel, sugary White Zinfandel, is the most widely sold wine in America and for good reason. Low in alcohol and loaded with delightful flavors of skittles, cotton candy, bubble gum, this is an exceptionally easy-drinking wine, preferred by any self-respecting oenophile. It has the panache of quality and is loaded with enough complexity to keep even the most snobbish wine drinker interested and engaged. I have reviewed one of these wines below as well and highly recommend grabbing a bottle (or case) and seeing for yourself.

Listed below for your drinking pleasure are the finest examples of these sweet wines, all worth seeking out both for immediate drinking and cellaring in order to follow their development over the next couple years (or decades). As an added bonus all of the following wines are YH Best Buys!

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Samaech,

Bartenura, Moscato, 2010: Words are insufficient to describe the delectableness of this popular wine which is easily the flagship of the genre and well deserving to be the first in this list of tasting notes. Year after year, the quality of this wine is maintained by only using the best and freshest grapes, with cold fermentation resulting in a light and delightfully fresh fruity taste. Great balance between the sugars and candy flavors, tinted with some citrus and floral notes. With perfect sweetness, this wine is great as an aperitif or with dessert. Loads of grapey fruit, peach and stewed pears, together with the low price (easily a YH Best Buy), all combine for a delicious and refreshing wine that keeps the kosher wine consumer coming back for more and more. Should be served chilled and is also great combined with some Canada Dry club soda, crushed (or cubed) ice and a little piece of lime squeezed in for a great shpritzer.

Carmel, Young Selected, Moscato, 2009: As any regular reader of this newsletter knows, Carmel has completely reinvented itself in recent years as a serious winery, truly one of Israel’s best. However, while their Limited Edition, Mediterranean and Single Vineyard wines may be pretty good, it is clearly wines like the Emerald Riesling mentioned above and this spectacular treat that make Carmel the incredible winery it is today. With plenty of sweetness nicely balanced by gobs of acidity and a low alcohol content, this wine is for everyone and could easily replace soda-pop as a regular drink. Slightly frizzante and exceedingly pleasing on the palate with plenty of peaches, limes, ginger ale and hints of steel all of which come together in an aesthetic and pleasing way. One to drink very well chilled and to come back to again and again. Another YH Best Buy.

Santero, Primo-V Moscato: A great example of a classic Moscato, this one made by the prestigious Santero winery, located just outside the northern Italian town of Asti. Extreme aromatics and pleasantly sweet. Made from fresh pressed Moscato grapes that are cold fermented to preserve the grape’s delicate aromatics which include spring flowers, heather, limes, apricots and peaches – truly the epitome of springtime! Plenty of natural acidity to keep the sweetness in check and loaded with light bubbles that keep the wine alive and fresh on your palate. A true crowd-pleaser, this wine is a YH Best Buy and highly recommended.

Baron Herzog, Jeunesse, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010: As mentioned above, Gary V loved this wine and I must add myself to its long list of raving fans which also include these twins from France who honored it with an incredible balancing act routine. A wine that does great justice to the most noble of all varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon. Highly recommended as I doubt you have ever tasted such a special example of this grape ever before. I hesitate quote but the author of this hit the nail on its head when saying “among the enchanting secrets that often escape aficionados of Cabernet Sauvignon are the youthful nuances of character that are displayed during the wine’s infancy”. A rich and royal purple color is the first indicator that you are about to experience something special which is only reinforced by the fresh raspberries, blackberries and cherries leading into a slightly sweet and lingering finish. Gobs of vanilla and strawberries abound, reminding you of a delicious strawberry and cream dessert. A fresh young character envelops this wine, giving it sophistication and complexity and the genesis of its name – French for youthful and fun.

Baron Herzog, White Zinfandel, 2009: Another hugely popular wine and I cannot help but agree after my extensive tasting of this wine over the years. Respectfully representative of this honorable grape with ton of great wine aromas like cotton candy, fruit taffy and ripe strawberries on first attack are closely followed by light citrus hints, vanilla and some tart raspberries. A light and pleasing sweetness complements the fruit and candy, notwithstanding its (relatively for the genre) high alcohol content. A great Shabbat gift that any self-respecting wine-lover would enjoy and eagerly open to complement any meal.

Layla, Semi-Sweet Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage Unimportant: As with the Jeunesse above, this wine presents Cabernet Sauvignon is a whole new light that will change your life forever. Tons of fruit and sugar on both the nose and palate combine to make for a very special experience. This wine presents as the magical and elusive combination that goes well with both your meal and dessert. The wine moves seamless from cholent to chocolate babka without missing a beat and saving you the trouble of finding multiple wines for your multi-course meal. Also highly recommended is the semi-sweet Argentinean Bonarda wine produced under the Byblos label.

Rashi, Joyvin Red, Vintage Irrelevant: Easily one of the best wines produces by yet another great producer – Rashi, although their Asti takes a close second place. A semi-sweet delight, loaded with rich flavors of red fruit, melon and Meyer lemons, complemented by plenty of sugar and bubbles; this wine is any oenophiles dream. Great ice cold and with any dessert, this wine is at its best with chocolate. A great quote I heard about this wine is “the unique extended, frosted glass bottle is eye-catching, thereby adding to the ease of identification – helpful when you’re in a hurry”. A great Sunday brunch wine, especially when paired with scrambled eggs, lox and bagels.