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Sweet reds are tasty

There's an axiom among wine fans that people start out preferring sweet wines, then graduate to dry wines as they get more experience and sophistication.

Then there's the minority view that when wine drinkers get even more experienced and sophisticated, they come full-circle, appreciating well-made sweet wines again. Even sweet red wines.

I'm not talking about super-sweet red dessert wines like port. It has its own reputation as one of the world's finest wines. I'm talking about semisweet red table wines made to sip chilled as aperitifs or with pizza, burgers and barbecue.

Fans of sweet red wine are a disrespected minority, so looked-down-upon by more, uh, discerning wine fans that they probably could qualify for official minority status and federal aid. But you know what? They have a point.

A good example is Red Cat wine from Hazlitt 1852 Winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, made from the pale, red Catawba grape, a native American varietal, and the darker baco noir, a French hybrid.

It's very nice, and so popular it's approaching cult status. It's medium-sweet at 7 percent residual sugar, intensely fruity with flavors of sweet black cherries. It's light-bodied at 11 percent alcohol and not very tannic. It's worth buying for the label alone -- a cartoon of a randy red cat in a hot tub with a sultry female cat in a bikini behind him.

When I visited the Finger Lakes area a few years ago, Red Cat was already legendary -- the guilty pleasure of professional winemakers who spent most of their days making fine, dry wines like riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc.

Another good sweet red wine is Artisan Red from Black Star Farms winery outside Traverse City, on the northern tip of lower Michigan. It's a semisweet blend (4.5 percent residual sugar) of three cool-weather grapes, the French Hybrid Marechal Foch and two German red grapes, Regent and Dornfelder. It has soft tannins and low alcohol and tastes like sweet strawberries and Twizzlers candy.

Yet another good sweet red is the very slightly fizzy lambrusco from Northern Italy. This was my house wine when I was a student there in the 1960s, only partly because it was 48 cents a liter. Made of the local grapes lambrusco, marani, montericco, salamino and lancellotta and light-bodied at 8 percent alcohol, it still brings fond memories.

These days in California, Fox Brook winery makes a red wine from shiraz, merlot and other red grapes that's lightly sweet and light-bodied, only 10 percent alcohol.

Some of these wines are easier to find than others. Lambrusco is widely available, one of America's biggest imports from Italy. Red Cat is on sale in 14 states including Florida, as well as online. Black Star is available at blackstarfarms.com.

Who are the fans of sweet red wines?

"People who are a little more open to trying something new, who associate the wine with fun," says Phillips, the Hazlitt spokesman.

Those fans even have an online survey of 1,485 wine drinkers to back them up -- sponsored by the Rotary Club in Lodi, Calif., which was hosting a wine contest. It concluded that people who prefer sweet wines are younger, "primarily female but with a significant percentage of males as well -- young, adventurous and willing to try new wines."

Dry wine drinkers, it concluded, are more likely to be male and a little older. "They like jargon and they like authority. Then tend to think of themselves as connoisseurs."

I guess that means it takes courage to drink sweet, red wines.

Readers, tell me about your experiences with them at wineMiamiHerald.com. We need to stick together.

> Recommended:

Nonvintage Red Cat, Hazlitt 1852 Winery, Finger Lakes, New York: pale red, light-bodied, intensely fruity with flavors of sweet black cherries and a lightly tart cherry finish, very soft tannins; $7.

Nonvintage Artisan Red, Black Star Farms, Mich.: soft tannins, light body, with flavors of sweet strawberries and licorice candy; $14.

Nonvintage Fox Brook Sweet Red Wine, California: lightly sweet, light-bodied, very fruity with red raspberry flavors and very soft tannins; $6.

Reunite Lambrusco IGT, Emilia, Italy: lightly sweet strawberries, slightly fizzy, very soft tannins; $8.

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