The growing population of sweet reds


One of the fastest growing segments of the wine industry is sweet red wines. This isn’t much of a surprise since most folks grow up and continue to go through life with high-fructose corn syrup or refined sugars in nearly every processed food product we eat. Some of the more tasty if nutrition-less garbage, like donuts, cupcakes, soda, ice cream and the like, are obviously sugar-packed, but so many other processed foods have such sweeteners too — from pasta sauce to Cheerios, and from energy drinks to yogurt. So winemakers are now recognizing that many consumers are looking for wines that fit that same sweet-flavor profile.

Wine is produced when yeasts convert the sugar found in grapes into alcohol via fermentation. To produce a “dry” (not sweet wine), this process is allowed to proceed until there is very little residual sugar remaining. The customary method to create a sweet wine is to stop fermentation while there is still some sugar left in the juice. Most every type of dessert wine, red, white or pink, is created this way.

This growing interest in sweet red wines has very little to do with traditional Manischewitz. The Jewish immigrants who settled in the northeastern United States last century discovered that the only locally available grapes suitable for wine production were American varietals like the concord grape. It tasted horrible. The way to make the wine both palatable and easy to produce was to add a huge amount of sugar to the grape juice — it aided fermentation and improved the taste of the product. But, as is well known now, there is no religious requirement that a kosher wine has to be sweet, much less so sickly sweet.

There are now several sweet kosher wines available made from grapes other than concord. Pretty much any varietal can be used since the easiest way to make them sweet is to add some unfermented grape juice which boosts both their color and sugar content. These wines are usually labeled “semi-sweet,” or “semi-dry” or perhaps “off-dry.” While our preference is for dry wines (except during dessert), their appearance has prompted an increased interest in sweet kosher wines by those who previously considered red wines unappealing.

During a recent local consumer kosher-wine tasting that featured 22 wines — one of many fabulous events to mark the 40th anniversary of Shalom Kosher in Silver Spring — one of these sweet red wines emerged as one of the collective favorites of the night. This was the Israeli-made Ben Ami Zmora Semi-Sweet Cabernet Sauvignon. While certainly displaying a notable sweetness, there is still appreciable Cabernet Sauvignon character including dark fruit, cherries and currants. A light, soft, sweet version of its dry red wine cousin and priced around $10, you may want to open a bottle for those at your table who eschew dry red wines.

As part of this same Shalom Kosher wine tasting, there were yummy cheeses there too, we were invited to help man the tasting stations as “experts” (since “alcoholics” doesn’t sound nearly so compelling) along with our friend, author, and local wine maven Maurie Rosenberg. Maurie kindly shared with us some of his Glenmorangie Ealanta — he had just recently picked up another bottle — which has recently earned some highly coveted critical praise. We had tasted it upon its release, but not since. Thanks again Maurie!
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d reconsider the Glenmorangie Ealanta here. The Glenmorangie is owned by the good folks at Moet Hennessy USA, the American wing of parent company LVMH or Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton S.A. Among many other brands and luxury products, they also own the Ardbeg Scotch Whisky Distillery.

Among the various Glenmorangie whiskies they regularly bring to market, they now routinely create whiskies for their limited “Private Edition” range. Last year was their “Artein,” which we greatly enjoyed, and the year before that was their peated “Finealta“, which — big surprise — we also really, really liked. This year, Glenmorangie pushed out the 19-year-old “Ealanta” aged in new (or virgin) oak from Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest — which essentially means that it was distilled like Scotch whisky, but aged like bourbon. The word Ealanta, we are informed, is Scots Gaelic for “skilled and ingenious.” We really liked it at the time we tasted, though we didn’t necessarily think it was worth the high price tag.

Since then, just earlier this month in fact, the Ealanta was crowned “World Whisky Of The Year” in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2014 (Murray’s annual guide of his thousands of whisky-tasting notes). While Jim Murray hasn’t achieved quite the same level of influence as Robert Parker at the height of his wine-world domination, Jim is probably as close as the world of whisky is likely to see. Certainly his very top picks sell out rather quickly once he’s publicized them. Mostly this is lamentable, though we are pleased to note we are rarely caught wholly unawares by his picks (even though we frequently wished we had stocked up before he renders them nearly impossible to find, and anyway too expensive to buy if found).

Murray gave the Ealanta a 97.5 points (out of 100) and described it in part as having “one of the longest finishes of any Scotch this year … and borderline perfection.” He also commented that it beat out its similarly scored William Larue Weller Kentucky Bourbon rival, “because it went out and did something very different: not only did it blow me away with its deftness, beauty and elegance, but it gave an aroma and taste profile completely new to me in over 30 years of tasting whisky.” For Murray, this means it was best out of more than 4,500 competitors this year, and puts it in the category of his coveted: “Approaching one of the best whiskies of my lifetime” Of course, he’s just a guy with an opinion — he’s been a respected booze writer for 30 years, his whisky books have sold close to a half million copies and he tastes more than 1,000 news whiskies every year — but even still, just like anyone else, his reviews are subjective.

Upon retasting the other day and then reviewing our original tasting notes, we think we still think we nailed it the first time:

Glenmorangie Ealanta, Private Edition, 19 year old, Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky (46 percent abv; $120 upon its release): This whisky features aromatic notes of honey, custard, nutmeg, cinnamon, baked apple, caramel, and oak. The soft, creamy, and oily palate offers flavors of nuts, hot spice, vanilla, candied orange peel, green apple, some tropical fruit and some underlying sweetness, finishing with more vanilla, cinnamon and some drying oak tannin. This frankly tastes more like a hybrid of Glenmorangie Scotch and aged bourbon, and seems not altogether in harmony, but is nonetheless very rewarding and enjoyable. If obtainable under $100, we’d be a lot more enthusiastic — but for those happy to spend on something new and interesting, this is a great option.

So now it’s not so new, and the odds of finding it on sale are greatly diminished, but hey, it is a lovely dram. L’Chaim!

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