Some “serious” wine drinkers malign sweet wines. It’s understandable, because most are mass-produced simply by adding sugar to a red or white base that doesn’t have much character to begin with. True connoisseurs stop short of condemning the whole category, knowing that some are made with great care and skill (and without added sugar), and considered among the greatest wines in the world (Sauternes, from the Bordeaux region in France, is the best-known example).
Local sweet wines may not rise to that level, but many are of very high quality, produced using methods followed for centuries by European winemakers. The essential task is twofold: Naturally increase the sugar content of the grapes, and then stop the fermentation process before the yeast converts most of the sugar into alcohol.
There are several ways to achieve greater sugar concentration: Let the fruit ripen longer before picking (to make so-called “late harvest” wines), dry the grapes after picking, allow or cause the fruit to freeze (water exits in the form of ice), or, in very specific conditions, let the fungus Botrytis cinerea poke tiny holes in the grape skins before harvesting, which causes the fruit to dehydrate (commonly known as “noble rot”).
While conditions in Virginia are not conducive to noble rot, the other techniques mentioned are indeed utilized by local winemakers to produce sweet wines of notable character. These wines can be paired with confections (layer cake or chocolate-covered strawberries, anyone?), but a small glass can also stand alone as a liquid dessert. Certainly, these wines should not be reserved only for Valentine’s Day, but they are high-quality, delicious wines that should help you win over anyone’s heart.
Here are some that I recommend:
2017 R.A.H Series 1 (by Maya Hood White)
$35 per 375ml bottle
Maya Hood White, associate winemaker and viticulturist at Early Mountain Vineyards, utilizes a technique known in Italy as appassimento, where grapes are dried on straw mats after harvest. R.A.H are the initials of White’s beloved grandmother, and the wine is clearly something from the heart. This wine is 75 percent petit manseng and 25 percent malvasia, which adds some delicacy on the palate and enhances the aroma, which is honeyed with scents reminiscent of dried tropical fruits and melon. The wine is luscious but not too heavy, with flavors of dried apricot and honeysuckle, stewed banana, and pineapple. Only a very small quantity of this was made, and it is well worth seeking out. Available at The Wine Guild of Charlottesville and In Vino Veritas.
2013 Michael Shaps Raisin d’Être White
$25 per 375ml bottle
This dessert wine from Michael Shaps made it into the Virginia Governor’s Case in 2019, just as the 2012 vintage did in 2015. It’s made from 100 percent petit manseng that has undergone drying. However, in a unique nod to Virginia’s history, Shaps has repurposed old barns once used to dry tobacco leaves to “raisin” the grapes. The wine presents aromas of white raisins and tropical fruits. The flavor initially is very forward, with lots of dried and candied tropical fruit, but transitions nicely into fresh acidity that brings to mind fresh pineapple and tangerine. The finish is long and complex.
2016 King Family Vineyards Loreley
$29 per 375ml bottle
Although there is no vintage designated on the bottle, this is the 2016 vintage of Loreley. A previous vintage was included in the 2017 Governor’s Case. Produced from 100 percent petit manseng dried after picking, this wine also ages for a time in oak barrels, lending additional aromas and flavors. On the nose, apricot and orange predominate, with a floral hint, and the wine fills the mouth with orange, vanilla, honey, and roasted-nut flavors.
2015 Barboursville Vineyards Paxxito
$32 per 375ml bottle
Yet another appassimento wine, hence the name Paxxito, a variation of passito. Moscato ottonel and vidal blanc grapes are harvested early in order to capture the natural acidity in the grape. Early harvesting, however, means lower sugar levels. Drying offsets this deficit, and the formula clearly works—the 2014, 2013, and 2008 vintages have all been included in Virginia Governor’s Cases. The aroma is floral and fruity, which might lead you to anticipate a light-bodied wine. However, it is of medium weight on the palate, with flavors of honey, apricots, toasted almonds, and background notes of peach and fresh mint.
2015 Rockbridge Vineyard V d’Or
$25 per 375ml bottle
This blend of vidal blanc, vignoles, riesling, and traminette is made in the style of an ice wine, meaning the grapes are frozen and the ice removed before fermentation, which concentrates the flavors, acid, and sugar. The 2010 vintage was featured in the 2015 Governor’s Case. On the nose, there is a distinct lemon-lime character. The wine is relatively light-bodied and shows loads of acidity and a flavor like fresh lemonade made with honey. A hint of citrus peel bitterness adds complexity to the finish.
2014 Veritas Vineyard and Winery Kenmar
$20 per 375ml bottle
Also made ice-wine style but from 100 percent traminette, a hybrid grape derived partly from gewürztraminer. Like its parent, traminette is full of spicy and floral aromas, and a distinct perfumed character. All of this comes through in this wine. The nose is very forward, with the floral, perfumed scents joined by white pepper. Like other ice wines, it is lighter on the tongue than one might expect, and high acidity provides lift for the flavors of flowers, honey, dried mango, candied pineapple, and citrus.
2016 King Family Vineyards “7”
$31 per 500ml bottle
In Portugal, the grapes made into port barely begin fermenting before brandy is added. This increases the alcohol level and halts fermentation, preserving the freshness and sweetness of the fruit. King Family adopted this process, letting a crush of petit verdot reach the desired sweetness and then introducing Virginia brandy. The wine is aged in old Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. This unique combination of methods and ingredients produces a deep-red wine with aromas of plum, blackberry, fig, and vanilla. The flavor follows along with a rich, sweet flavor of red fruit and hints of smoke and leather.