Most beginning wine drinkers like their quaff at least a little sweet. As they gain experience, they learn that "sweet," when applied to wine, is synonymous with "uncool." With further experience, they learn that the people who looked down their noses when they ordered Lambrusco are the uncool ones; that sugar plays a role in most fine wines, and in some, a dominant role. A wine can handle a lot of sugar without becoming "too sweet," just as a perfectly ripe peach can: It's a question of having enough acid to balance the sweetness. And over the centuries, winemakers all over the world have found ways to do just that, with memorable results. Here, in rough order of ascending sweetness, are a few favored ones.
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Lambrusco (prices vary)
Yes, lambrusco; the grape Reunite is made from. After years of struggling to shake the seedy reputation Reunite gave it, lambrusco is back, still dark red and slightly foamy, with a background hint of sweetness but dry enough to make an agreeable aperitif or holiday sparkler on its own. Look for La Luna brand (about $17); you and your friends are sure to enjoy it; just be sure they know they're in for a surprise before they sip it.
Columbia Cellarmaster's Riesling (about $10)
One of the best wines produced in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the most underappreciated. Refreshing on its own but food-friendly, this wine is a favorite nationwide with people who don't care a damn about residual sugar. But to get a local "expert" to try it, you practically have to swathe the bottle in white linen so they can't see the label. Pay no attention to the snobs; this wine's a pip.
Kanzemer 2002 Altenberg Riesling Spätlese (about $30)
Even buyers unfamiliar with the arcana of German wine labels know that the word "spätlese" means "sugar." What they may not know is that a wine so labeled may taste as bracing as brut champagne; it's not a question of residual sugar alone but how the sugar's balanced by the wine's natural acidity. This wine, from one of Germany's most venerable vineyards and producers, could make a convert of anyone whose palate's not completely burned out by oak and tannin.
Ste. Chapelle 2002 Special Harvest johannisberg riesling (about $11)
With this Idaho bottling, we're moving into frankly sweet wines. The 2003 edition of this perennial favorite has nearly 7 percent residual sugar and less than 10 percent alcohol, but it stands up well to rich but not overly sweet food—nuts, moderately salty cheeses, crisp apple slices.
Warre's Otima 20-year-old tawny port (about $45)
There are literally hundreds of varieties of port, but once you find one you like, you can confidently go on buying it from then on because each (nonvintage) port is blended to a precise formula to make sure its balance of roughness, sweetness, and tartness holds up the reputation of the house that's been blending it that way for hundreds of years. Leave vintage port for experts with plenty of money for experimentation. A 20-year-old tawny offers the best balance between matured flavor and reasonable price.
Dios Baco oloroso sherry (about $18)
Sweet sherry? You mean Bristol Cream, right? Nope. There are sherries with a substantial amount of sugar that still have enough structure to support drinking them with food, chilled as an aperi-tif, or at room temperature after dinner. Wine Enthusiast recently gave this wine a 93-out-of-100 score, which is pretty amazing given its modest price.
Blandy's Bual Madeira (about $19)
Madeira is better known these days for its role in the history of war and commerce than for its flavor, and that's a shame, because its idiosyncratic character is perfect for some occasions and purposes. The only wine that is deliberately "cooked" to develop a burnt-sugar tang, Madeira works equally well for splashing on fruitcake and over vanilla ice cream or sipping from a mini-glass on its own.
Rutherglen Muscat and Tokay (about $12 a half-bottle)
Only a few years ago, "Australian wine" meant plonk: either raw reds or cloyingly sweet whites. In the process of civilizing the industry, the reds have been smoothed out and most of the whites ripped out of the ground. But the Campbells of Rutherglen chose to upgrade their ancient white vines to make world-class dessert wines from muscadelle and Muscat grapes. The results are noble wines, exhibiting finesse and class even at under $20. (If you want to go all the way, check out their "Merchant Prince" Muscat, fit for a prince—and, at more than $50 a half-bottle, priced for one as well.)
Sauternes 2000 Chateau de Cosse (about $45)
You can argue till the cows come home about which is the nobler wine, Hungary's Tokay or France's Sauternes, but for the classic death-by-self- indulgence pairing with plain sautéed foie gras, it's got to be Sauternes. This one, the "second label" of the great Chateau Riussec, delivers nobility without the markup for the name. If that's still too much to spend after you've busted the budget for the fresh foie, consider a wine from the small appellation of Sainte Croix du Mont, which delivers a Sauternes-like experience at under $15.
Our thanks to the staffs at fine wine shops like DeLaurenti, Esquin, European Vine Selections, Pete's Bellevue, Larry's Bellevue, McCarthy & Schiering, Metropolitan Markets, and Pike & Western for sharing their expertise and enthusiasm with us.