The Glories of Sweetness

Posted on Posted in Articles, Chateau La Rame, Chateau Soucherie, Clos de la Meslerie, Cru d’Arche Pugneau, Domaine de Fenouillet, Domaine de Montbourgeau, Domaine Lucien Crochet, Domaine Pecheur, Luigi Ferrando, Paolo Bea, Philippe Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin, Villa Sant’Anna, Yves Cuilleron

Long ago, sweetness in any form was far rarer than today, and it was prized thusly. In our era of ubiquitous corn syrup, junk food, and soda, it is difficult to imagine a world in which sugar was special, and the overall difficulty in selling sweet wines across all markets testifies to that. Still, sweetness in wine—real wine whose sweetness has not been coerced—remains one of nature’s rare gifts. Producing sweet wines requires a grower to be courageous, as she must wait to harvest and risk late-season vagaries of weather, or, in passito-style wines, assume the risk of air-drying fruit for upwards of half a year in her cellar. Sweet wine production requires prodigious effort for feeble yields, which generally then take longer to produce and longer to sell than their dry counterparts.

Sweet wines, though necessarily limited in their scope of usage, are often mistakenly relegated today to merely being served with dessert. This is an affront to their flexibility at the table, as the best sweet wines, due to their ample and cleansing acidity, are natural partners to rich savory dishes, as well as to complex spicy dishes that would overpower drier versions. In fact, we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always rejected the term “dessert wine” for this reason, and we encourage you to explore our broad and terroir-expressive collection of sweet wines, many of which boast significant bottle age and all of which offer singular glimpses into their appellations of origin.

Philippe Foreau / Domaine du Clos Naudin (Vouvray)

The greatest sweet wines in our portfolio are born in Philippe Foreau’s subterranean labyrinth of a cellar, from impeccably tended Chenin Blanc in the tuffeau-rich Clos Naudin. Perhaps no grape variety on earth carries residual sugar as deftly as Chenin Blanc, and the most riveting and long-lasting Chenins are inarguably those with some degree of sweetness. Philippe and his son Vincent never coax anything from their harvest that nature has not given them; they don’t chaptalize, and they only produce fully sweet wines in the vintages that allow for them. Their Vouvray Moelleux always sports a lightning bolt of acidity, which counterbalances the intense sweetness to a startling degree and makes the wines all but bulletproof in the cellar. A deep, ringing earthiness combines with a limestone hammer-blow to further distract from the sugar, and the length on these wines is mind-boggling. We relish the ability to stock significantly older vintages of Foreau’s iconic sweet wines, as these represent among the most amazing and age-worthy wines on the planet.

  • 2015 Vouvray Moelleux
  • 2011 Vouvray Moelleux
  • 2016 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve
  • 2015 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve
  • 2009 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve
  • 2003 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve
  • 2011 Vouvray “Goutte d’Or”
Le Clos de la Meslerie (Vouvray)

Peter Hahn, originally from the east coast of the US, purchased a small two-hectare estate in Vouvray in the mid-2000s, incorporating the lessons he learned from his teacher and friend Damien Delecheneau (of the beloved Montlouis estate La Grange Tiphaine) into a highly personal and remarkably expressive take on the appellation. Having worked without synthetic chemicals from the beginning, Peter and his rickety hundred-year-old basket press produce but one Vouvray per vintage, and Peter allows the wine to decide at which level of sweetness it will end up. Some years it is searingly dry, and some years it is lusciously sweet, but it is always vivid in its fruit profile, broad in its aromatic and flavor spectrum, and deeply connected to the impeccable fruit from which it is made. As with Foreau above, Peter uses only well-worn small oak casks for aging, and never yeasts or chaptalizes his wines. His are wonderfully caressing examples of Chenin Blanc which revel in textural nuance and gain swoony truffle notes as they age.

  • 2015 Vouvray Moelleux
  • 2009 Vouvray Moelleux
Château Soucherie (Coteaux du Layon)

From a nearly intimidatingly beautiful setting atop a hill overlooking their 36 hectares of organically farmed vines rolling toward the Layon River far below, Château Soucherie produces expressive, balanced, spot-on Chenin Blanc of great mineral strictness and varietal veracity. Between their Anjou Blanc and their terrific Savennières (from the Clos des Perrières), most of their Chenin Blanc production is bone-dry, but their sweet Coteaux du Layon and Chaume stand out for their precision and clarity; these schist soils (laden with flint in Chaume) produce Chenin of sharper mineral thrust than that of Vouvray, and they compensate in electric drive what they perhaps lack in sheer loveliness by comparison. Soucherie’s preference to vinify and age their sweet wines largely in stainless steel rather than in oak enhance the impression of briskness and focus.

  • 2017 Coteaux du Layon “Patrimoine”
  • 2014 Coteaux du Layon 1er Cru Chaume
Lucien Crochet (Sancerre)

What is a producer of laser-focused, bone-dry Sancerre doing in this sweet-wine round-up? Once in a while, Gilles Crochet indulges his experimental streak and leaves a bit of Sauvignon Blanc to hang on the vine for a few weeks after his normal harvest, resulting in a wine that combines the chalky roar of his Bué terroir with enough residual sugar to bring out Sauvignon’s inner honeyed side. It quickly gains white-truffle notes with cellaring and sheds its youthful sense of sweetness, turning into a deep albeit unorthodox expression of Sancerre.

  • 2015 “Vendange du 7 Octobre”
Cru d’Arche Pugneau (Sauternes)

One of Bordeaux’ last remaining maverick outliers, Francis Daney owns a mere handful of hectares in Sauternes, surrounded by historic chateaus of great renown (Yquem and Suduiraut, to name two). In contrast to his corporate-owned neighbors, however, Francis makes his wine in a cinderblock shed with a minimum of technology, and he allows himself plenty of room to play around. The molasses-voiced, incredibly characterful Francis is notoriously difficult to pin down, so we buy what we can from him when we can, and availability is inevitably sporadic and unpredictable. The only wine currently in our warehouse is an experimental cuvée from the 2003 harvest that wasn’t bottled until 2015; it pours the color of Pedro Ximenez, and its intoxicating maelstrom of zone-typical botrytis is wed to Madeira-like notes of walnuts, sea salt, and pipe tobacco. This is not a wine for the faint of heart, nor is it appropriate for those looking for Sauternes of a purely classical bent, but for those curious about the outer limits of the appellation, as well as the outer limits of the entire category of sweet wine, it’s a must-try.

  • 2003 Sauternes “12 Ans d’Élevage”
Château La Rame (Sainte-Croix-du-Mont)

Angelique Armand and her husband Olivier Allo produce botrytized sweet wines at this centuries-old estate in the Sainte-Croix-du-Mont appellation which easily rival those more expensive and well-known versions from nearby Sauternes and Barsac. Only their best sites and oldest vines—60 years on average—are used for their sweet wines, which comprise a small portion of their total production. Displaying a remarkable sense of clarity and precisely articulating its limestone origins, La Rame’s Sainte-Croix-du-Mont allows for the decadent, exotic botrytis-derived characteristics to coexist happily with bright, ringing fruit and cleansing acidity. These wines under-display their levels of residual sugar and are far more versatile at the table than the category is often given credit for; they also remain remarkable values in the context of the region.

  • 2017 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont “Tradition”
  • 2016 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont “Réserve”
  • 2014 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont “Réserve”
  • 2013 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont “Réserve”
  • 2011 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont “Réserve”
Domaine de Fenouillet (Beaumes de Venise)

Brothers Vincent and Patrick Soard have long been a rock-solid source for us of true-to-type, ego-devoid, delicious, organically farmed wines from the southern Rhône appellations of Beaumes de Venise and Ventoux. They devote a small portion of their production to the locally famous Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a riotously aromatic concoction created by the addition of grape brandy to a fermenting must, thereby arresting the process while plenty of residual sugar remains and adding a subtle bottom-end punch of alcohol. Like their red wines, the Soard brothers’ Muscat shows impeccable balance, lacking the overly cloying character that can occasionally plague the category and reveling in the spice-drenched, exotic, extroverted nature of its fruit.

  • 2018 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
Yves Cuilleron (Northern Rhône)

Though renowned internationally for his impressive dry Condrieu and his gutsy reds from Saint-Joseph and Côte-Rôtie, Yves Cuilleron produces minute quantities of sweet wines in certain vintages as well, which are always compelling and unique iterations of these northern Rhône terroirs and varieties. “Les Ayguets” is a sweet Condrieu made from late-harvested, botrytis-affected Viognier planted in and around the village of Chavanay; Yves contends that, historically, late-harvested grapes blessed by the noble rot were the original and classic version of Condrieu, so he has labored annually (when conditions merit) to produce this unique barrel-aged gem. And “Roussilière” comes from very late-picked, botrytised Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier—also from his holdings in Chavanay; its aromas of tangerine and honey introduce a thick, viscous palate whose balancing acidity prevents its richness from spilling over into excess.

  • 2016 Condrieu “Les Ayguets”
  • 2018 “Roussilière” Blanc Liquoreux
Domaine de Montbourgeau (L’Étoile)

The undisputed star (pun intended) of her tiny Jura appellation of L’Étoile, Nicole Deriaux ekes out scant quantities of the labor-intensive local specialty knows as Vin de Paille. Produced primarily from Chardonnay with smaller quantities of Savagnin and Poulsard, Montbourgeau’s Vin de Paille is picked normally but aged in the open air on straw mats until the January following the harvest, at which point the dried grapes are pressed for their pittance of juice, which ferments to a colossal level of residual sugar but with a load of balancing acidity. Through the thickness of sugar and spice, the Jura’s mineral intensity peeks out, endowing this rustic yet complex elixir with a strong sense of place.

  • 2015 Vin de Paille
  • 2014 Vin de Paille
Domaine Pêcheur (Côtes du Jura)

The infectiously warm husband-and-wife team of Patricia and Christian Pêcheur produce a terrific Vin de Paille from their vineyards around Voiteur that is a bit lighter on its feet and breezier than that of Domaine de Montbourgeau above. Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Savganin, Poulsard, and Trousseau, it ferments in steel and spends two years in neutral oak casks.

  • 2009 Vin de Paille
Paolo Bea (Umbria)

Bea’s rare and mind-bendingly complex passito (the traditional method for making Sagrantino di Montefalco, in fact) comes from pure Sagrantino harvested at a high brix level and left to dry naturally on straw mats in the upper level of his grand winery. After several months of drying, the bunches are destemmed and crushed, at which point an infinitesimal amount of juice is pressed forth from the ultra-shriveled berries. Fermentation skulks along until the sugar levels reach 16% to 18%. The final product carries around 100 grams per liter of residual sugar and delivers a visceral blast of Sagrantino essence: spice cake, cured tobacco leaves, peppery black fruits, old leather, and a profound sense of umami. Always released after a significant amount of aging (thereby increasing its already stunning complexity), it is an idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping wine that feels like a transmission from another era.

  • 2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito
Villa Sant’Anna (Tuscany)

In a tiny separate cellar on the modest but gorgeous grounds of Villa Sant’Anna in Abbadia di Montepulciano rests one of the most complex and enigmatic sweet wines in our collection: a deeply traditional Vin Santo made in the labor-intensive and patience-requiring ancient method. Bunches of Trebbiano, Malvasia, and other indigenous varieties are dried for six months after harvest, at which point their pittance of juice is pressed out by hand and poured into tiny, nearly decrepit barrels, which are then sealed with wax and left untouched for eight years before their contents are painstakingly bottled by hand. These barrels, which are never sanitized, impart the intense character of their centuries-old yeast mothers, and the Vin Santo of Villa Sant’Anna—one of only a handful in the category still made in this style—offers a dizzyingly explosion of tobacco, baking spices, orange peel, salted nuts, and untamed acidity, married to a staggering level of residual sugar which often exceeds 200 grams per liter. We are able to buy but a handful of bottles in the vintages in which the sisters decide to produce it, and it is worth every penny of its asking price.

  • 2010 Vin Santo
  • 2008 Vin Santo
  • 2002 Vin Santo
  • 1999 Vin Santo
Ferrando (Piedmont)

The famously versatile Erbaluce, with its naturally high acidity and dense fruit, yields sweet wines of terrific balance and complexity. Nobody does justice to this unique northern Piedmont variety like the beloved Ferrando family, and their Erbaluce di Caluso passito—produced in miniscule quantities and only in certain vintages—retains the variety’s regal poise despite its massively sweet character. Produced from glacial-moraine-derived Erbaluce which rests five months in the open air and ferments and ages in small oak barrels, this is a lavish, decadent, hyper-complex wine that winks at Chenin Blanc in its orchard-fruit core and seductive honeyed character yet stands apart in its clear articulation of Alpine minerality and fresh mountain herbs.

  • 2012 Erbaluce di Caluso Passito
  • 2010 Erbaluce di Caluso Passito
  • 2009 Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

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