No Shame in Being Sweet

EM4-LoRes (1)37When asked, many a wine drinker will ask for a “dry” wine. But in truth, Americans generally like it sweet—the opposite of dry when speaking of wine. Wines with a little residual sugar—like the popular Kendall-Jackson and Yellow Tail— are big sellers.

But no matter. It’s okay to drink sweet wine. Just wait until after dinner, when one can indulge in a confection with little thought of opprobrium. The grapes that make a great sweet wine are rare; spared by rain and frost long enough to ripen in the extreme, this fruit has been long celebrated by wine-producing communities that take advantage by making wine that showcases the sugar. A long growing season is rare in Germany, which classifies wine by the fruit’s ripeness, and is the birthplace of Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company in New York’s Finger Lakes. Since his arrival in 2000, Reinhardt has been able to make sweet wine in the German style in only three vintages, years when the ripening season lasted well into October. Of those three, only one was what he calls berry selection, when individual grapes are picked by hand rather than the bunch: the 2006 Martini Reinhardt Selection Vignoles Berry Selection.

What does that really mean? Let’s dissect the label: Martini is the name of the family that owns the winery and vignoles is the name of the
grape—which Reinhardt hadn’t met until he moved to upstate New York. He and the varietal soon developed “a special relationship,” as he puts it. It’s a high-acid grape and, despite its thick skin, can develop the special mold—noble rot—that desiccates grapes and makes the world’s most famous dessert wines: Sauternes.

When it comes to creating interesting dessert wine, says Reinhardt, vignoles is “almost perfect.” But during his first harvest he saw vineyard workers throw away grapes affected by noble rot. “They were just crying to be TB A,” he said. TB A, short for trockenbeerenauslese, or select harvest of dried berries, is the ultimate in German wine, made only from grapes that have been dried nearly to raisins by noble rot. Beerenauslese, the select harvest of not-yet dried fruit (and the German term for berry selection) is one step below. For Reinhardt to make that, his grapes must reach high Brix levels—Brix is the scientific measurement of sugar content used in the United States. In the warmth of 2006, that’s what he got, and he made 205 cases of the Berry Selection. But high sugar levels make for slow fermentation, and it was six weeks before the conversion of sugar into alcohol came to a stop. In the end, Reinhardt bottled a wine with 11 percent alcohol and 145 grams per liter of sugar (dry wine, by contrast, can contain up to six grams per liter).

The honey-colored wine is bright and clear, having settled in stainless steel tanks until the following summer. Sweet but refreshing, it tastes of caramelized pineapple and apricots, but the zippy acidity keeps it bright in your mouth. The acid could take on a crème brûlée and pin it to the tablecloth.

Last fall, Brix levels were climbing and Reinhardt hoped another berry selection wine was in the cards. But New York weather is as unpredictable as California’s is predictable; winemakers have to be ready for everything. “I’m happy I see potential,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be disappointed if it didn’t happen. There’s only so much you can do.”

Photo courtesy of Anthony Road.