Califonia Bountiful

Dessert wines

May/June 2007 California Country magazine

Thanks to some innovative California winemakers, diners can now choose from dozens of delicious dessert wines to complete their meal.

Saving the best for last

Quady Winery, whose 1981 launch helped revolutionize the dessert wine business, now makes more than a dozen different varieties including ports, vermouths and muscats. head winemaker Michael Blaylock says the Madera-based operation produces about 40,000 cases of wine annually.

Dessert wines were once the Rodney Dangerfields of the wine list--they got no respect. But thanks to some innovative California winemakers, diners can now choose from dozens of delicious--and completely respectable--wines to complete their meal.

"Fifty years ago American sweet wines were, in large part, glorified syrups, ridiculously sweet and devoid of much character. But today you have a whole new class of winemakers passionate about making really great, sophisticated dessert wines," explained David Berkley, a Sacramento wine connoisseur who serves as wine consultant to the White House.

According to government label regulations, dessert wines are "wines that have more than 14 percent alcohol, regardless of their sweetness." Sweet wines with less than 14 percent alcohol are considered "sweet table wines," but this term never appears on labels. While all this may leave the average consumer a bit befuddled, winemakers seem to savor the challenge.

"It is a confusing field, but a very rewarding one," said Andrew Quady of Quady Winery in Madera. "The anticipation I feel every year before harvest is a feeling that just can't be matched."

Quady and his wife, Laurel, left crowded Southern California and their jobs in merchandising to pursue their dream of a nonurban way of life--making wine. In 1976, they moved to Madera and Quady took a job at Lodi Vintners. During this time he also moonlighted, making port in the winery behind his house. The turning point came a couple of years later when an experiment with orange muscat--so named because the grapes have an aroma reminiscent of orange blossoms--resulted in an extraordinary new wine with an amazing floral-fruit character and suppleness. This was the famous Essensia, with which Quady launched his winery in 1981.

"We figured, why not give it a shot? Nobody else was doing it, so we had a corner on the market," Quady recalled.

Berkley asserts that Quady revolutionized the dessert wine business.

Its rose-like aroma inspired Blaylock to name one of Quady Winery's newest and most popular dessert wines Elysium, which in Greek means "heaven."

"He created a market when there really wasn't one and he embraced the idea of experimenting and trying new grapes and wines," Berkley said. "He was a true pioneer in California dessert wine."

Today Quady Winery is the foremost American winery specializing in dessert wine and the exclusive production of some of California's finest dessert wines and ports.

"We are doing things other wineries just don't like to do and we're succeeding," said head winemaker Michael Blaylock.

What makes a high-quality dessert wine, ironically, is not the sweetness, but the acidity. Too little acid yields a sugary taste, yet achieving the perfect balance between acidity and sweetness is anything but easy. And despite the common misconception, none of the steps involves adding processed sugar. The sweetness is simply the grapes' natural sugar.

"Here in California, you can't add sugar to wine to make it sweet. It has to occur naturally in the grape," Blaylock said.

Theoretically, almost any grape variety can be made into a dessert wine. In practice, however, about a dozen varietals seem to possess just the right potential. Among the most popular of these are riesling, gewurztraminer, semillon and the whole family of muscats.

Blaylock says there are several different ways to use these grapes to make an exceptional sweet wine. The fruit can be allowed to "raisin," which concentrates the sugars. Or, they can be allowed to freeze--as in German icewine--so that when the grapes are pressed, the water remains as ice, leaving just the syrupy concentrated sugars.

In certain parts of the state, grapes are set up to be attacked by a fungus called botrytis cinerea. In essence, the botrytis draws moisture out of the grapes, which super-concentrates its natural sugars. The result is a tremendously powerful wine with lots of flavor and aroma.

"It only works in dry, hot weather like we have down here in Madera," Blaylock said. "They usually don't do it in Napa or Sonoma because they would get other fungus in there."

Another way to produce high-quality sweet wines is to pick the grapes after the regular harvest, when they are full of natural sugars. These are usually called late-harvest wines and are a specialty of Dolce Winery. This Napa winery is the only winery in North America devoted solely to producing a single, late-harvest wine. There, workers go through the vineyards several times, a week or so apart, to pick the ripest grapes from each bunch.

All of the processes for making dessert wines are difficult and each carries risks--the crop can be destroyed by anything from hungry deer to severe weather. As a result, these wines are produced in small quantities and are almost universally expensive.

"In my opinion, technically, it is the most demanding winemaking in the world," said Greg Allen, Dolce's winemaker. "There is so much to worry about: Am I getting the right grapes? Are they ripe enough? Has the botrytis set in enough yet? There are some years that we simply don't have a harvest for whatever reason and you just have to learn to deal with it."

While production is difficult, the payoff can be, well, quite sweet. According to ACNielsen, the world's leading marketing information company, California dessert wines account for more than $47 million in sales, with numbers steadily increasing.

Quady Winery's cellar master Mauro Molina uses the tapping sounds of a hammer to determine the fullness of the barrels during the filling process.

"In the past, I think most people have reserved them only for special occasions," said Jon Fredrickson, wine industry analyst for the San Francisco-based consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates. "But now more and more people are giving them a chance and trying them not only after dinner, but before their meal as well. They're just fun wines."

The challenge, as it turns out, is not so much finding a good dessert wine as it is knowing what to serve with it, said Emily Luchetti, pastry chef at San Francisco's Farallon Restaurant.

"You won't know what works until you taste it," she said. "In general, you want the wine to be slightly sweeter than the dessert. The other rule is that you want to mirror flavors: creamy with creamy, nutty with nutty, fruit with fruit."

But the primary rule when it comes to dessert wines, one way or another, is to enjoy them.

"Dessert wines are decadent and complex and sometimes very confusing, but once you give them a chance, you will fall in love with them," Luchetti said. "They really are the perfect way to complete a meal."

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

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