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Savoring sweet whites

Last week I wrote about sweet red table wines, then cringed awaiting the disapprobation of discriminating wine fans who find them not up to the fine standards of dry wines.

This week I'm taking a safer route, writing about sweet white table wines. Even the most sophisticated aficionados accept the value of a noble sweet riesling or moscato.

And as I said, many wine fans start out preferring sweet wines, graduate to dry wines when they have more experience and, when they're truly seasoned sippers, come around again to appreciating well-made sweet wines. Red or white.

In both cases, I'm not talking about super-sweet dessert wines. I'm talking about moderately sweet wines.

Sweet whites can be gloriously fruity, with intense flavors of ripe oranges, succulent peaches or even honey, the best of them also having acids crisp enough to keep them from cloying.

Their best use might be for sipping, all by themselves as aperitifs or with a piece of ripe fruit or a fruit salad.

Sweet whites are great with spicy food. The sweetness soothes your scorched tongue and girds it for that next fiery bite. Such wines go well with Thai food, Szechuan cuisine, even Tex-Mex vittles like chipotle-flecked fish tacos. I tasted an Italian-Thai fusion fish stew with zingy yellow curry with a lightly sweet riesling, and it was a match from heaven.

Surprisingly, sweet white wines are great matches for cheese, especially powerful Gorgonzola, bleu, Taleggio and some Meunsters.

How are wines made sweet? Often it's by stopping fermentation before the yeast has turned all the natural grape sugar into alcohol. That means sweet wines can be low in alcohol. O'Neill Vintner's Moscato Allegro from California is quite sweet at 10 percent residual sugar, and low in alcohol at 10 percent instead of table wine's typical 12 percent.

Other growers simply leave the grapes on the vine longer to get riper. Kendall Jackson's riesling is lightly sweet at 2.2 percent residual sugar but still a hefty 13 percent alcohol. Alcohol is heavy, so wines with higher alcohol are fuller in body.

Sweet champagnes and sparkling wines can also be wonderful, a much better match than super-dry bubblies for wedding cake with an inch of frosting. It's odd, but "extra dry" bubbly is actually somewhat sweet. "Brut" is the name for the driest ones.

Highly Recommended:

2010 Moscato Allegro, O'Neill Vintners, "Cairn Ranch Vineyard," California: intense aromas of orange blossoms, quite sweet, balanced by crisp acids almost to the point of being fizzy, equally intense orange and tangerine flavors; $12.

Recommended:

Nonvintage Chandon "Riche" Extra-Dry Sparkling Wine, California: (pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot meunier, muscat, pinot blanc): fairly sweet, with flavors of honey and ripe peaches, nicely crisp; $16.

2009 Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" Riesling, Monterey County (riesling, muscat canelli, gewurztraminer, chardonnay, viognier): floral aroma, moderately sweet, flavors of ripe citrus; $12.

Nonvintage Barefoot Cellars Riesling, California: lightly sweet, flavors of golden delicious apples and minerals; $7.

2010 Crane Lake Moscato, California: floral aromas, ripe apricot flavors, light body, crisp: $6.

Nonvintage Biltmore Estate Chenin Blanc, North Carolina: lightly sweet, flavors of honey and limes, crisp; $11.

Nonvintage Korbel Extra-Dry Champagne, California (chenin blanc, pinot noir, chardonnay, French colombard): lightly sweet, flavors of lemons and limes, crisp: $11.

Nonvintage Korbel Sweet Cuvee Champagne, California: soft and quite sweet, with flavors of ripe apricots; $11.