Rod Byers: Valentine stickies |

Rod Byers: Valentine stickies

Rod Byers
Mark Henry at Montoliva delivers a deliciously sweet and fruity Vin Santo, which is produced traditonally.
Photo by Rod Byers |

Valentine stickies

Add some sweetness to your Valentine’s Day this year with these local dessert wine gems.

Szabo Vineyards, Elvezet

Dipping deep into his ancestral past, winemaker Alex Szabo followed a 14th century Hungarian protocol to make this Late Harvest Muscat that included the unusual white wine techniques of both time spent soaking on the skins, and time in the barrel. The wine is a remarkable 17.8 percent alcohol, without any fortification. A combination of vibrant aromatics, sweetness, acidity, and a whisper of smoke make this an intriguingly complex wine. The time in oak makes it taste drier than its 4.5 percent residual sugar would imply making it perfect not just for dessert but throughout the entire meal.

Sierra Starr Winery, Aurora

This traditional Noble Rot Sauternes is a Bordeaux blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Phil Starr described the botrytis-infected grapes as “covered in fuzz like they were wrapped in a furry carpet. They looked awful but that is what you want.” This full-bodied wine is 13.8 percent alcohol with a luscious 12 percent residual sugar. The thing about botrytis is that it completely dominates the grape’s natural aromatics replacing them with intense aromas of apricots, tangerines and honey. This classic is a thickly viscous and rich wine with a sweet and tangy finish of orange marmalade.

Montoliva Winery, Vin Santo

Winemaker Mark Henry selected Barbera to make this Vin Santo because of its fruity mid palate and naturally high acidity. Of all the dessert wine styles, this has to be the most labor intensive. Over two vintages, 2014 and 2015, Henry hung 3000 pounds of Barbera from the rafters overhanging his crush pad. He described it as a thousand trips up and down a ladder. You know it’s a labor of love when you realize that Henry only got about 20 percent of the amount of wine from the dried grapes that he would have gotten, had he crushed the Barbara in the typical manner.

The wine is 9.5 percent alcohol but he’s not really sure how sweet it is. The late harvest grapes were picked at 30 Brix of sugar which is a lot to begin with, and then dried, concentrating the sugars even more. The resulting wine is a combination of luscious sweet fruit with cherry, orange and citrus flavors balanced by a tangy finish that propels the fruit forward without becoming cloying.

Nevada City Winery, Dulcinea

Winemaker Mark Foster is returning to his roots with this wine. Dulcinea, a port-style wine, is a blend of five traditional Port-grape varieties including Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao, Bastardo, Souzao and Alvarelhao, all grown in the Tim Spencer’s St. Amant Vineyard in Amador County. Way back in the day, Mark Foster used to help blend Spencer’s classic ports using grapes from this same vineyard. Now, decades later, Foster helped to create his own blend for Nevada City Winery. The result is a classic ruby port, a fortified wine with 19 percent alcohol and a moderately sweet 7 percent residual sugar. The wine offers a complex flavor profile of baked plum, cherry, and Cointreau-infused chocolate, with balanced acidity and soft tannins.

It’s difficult to believe now, but sweet wines used to rule the wine world. From the aromatic Muscats of the ancient world, the delicate Rieslings of the Mosel, the unctuous Sauternes of Bordeaux, the exotic Tokjais from Hungary, or the fiery ports of the Douro, sweet wines were the most highly prized wines in the world.

Hugh Johnson writes in “Vintage: The Story of Wine,” that during the first century BC the Romans developed the first “grand cru” ranking of wines. Falernian, the first grand cru to be recognized and the most cherished wine of the day, was a sweet white wine.

Wine history

One bit of wine lore has it that in the 13th century Philip Augustus of France held the first ever wine tasting competition. The event was recorded in a notable French poem written by Henri d’Andeli in 1224. The competition which included wines from all over Europe and France, was won by a sweet wine from Cyprus.

It’s no surprise when you consider it from an historical perspective. Winemakers recognized early on that high levels of sugar acted as a preservative, giving wine stability. Normally yeast eats the sugars until they are gone, then die when they run out of food. But if the sugars are high enough the yeast simply cannot complete the job and die trying, leaving residual sugar. Winemakers learned that wines with high residual sugar were not only deliciously sweet, but also had the ability to age for decades.

In contrast, most dry wines were closer to vinegar than to what we think of as wine today. The newest wines were preferred over even one-year old wines, mostly because they had less time to go bad. Stuck fermentations were common and the resulting wines were unstable bacterial nightmares.

Over the centuries, winemakers discovered different ways to increase a grape’s natural sugar levels.

The most common, Late Harvest method, advocated by Virgil during Roman times, was to harvest the grapes as late as possible, allowing them to accumulate as much natural sugar as possible. Winemakers then attempted to stop the fermentation process by submerging their amphoras in cold water. The problem was that if the sugars were not high enough to exhaust the yeast, an unpredictable fermentation would start again when the wine warmed up.

In Crete, the Greeks developed a more reliable system of boosting natural sugars by twisting the stalks of their vines, depriving them of sap, forcing the grapes to dehydrate and shrivel like raisins. The loss of water dramatically concentrated the sugars in the remaining grape juice.

Climate & grapes

Different regions perfected different techniques for eliminating water from the grapes.

In warm climates, the easiest way to increase the grape’s sugar content was by drying the grapes after harvest. Known as Passito wines, the grapes were dried on either straw mats, racks, even hung from rafters. This tradition continues today, particularly in Italy which boasts a remarkable 43 types of passito wines, including the best known, Vin Santo.

In frosty climates, winemakers learned to make Ice Wine by picking and pressing frozen grapes, capturing the concentrated sugars while eliminating the frozen water as ice crystals. The results are among the world’s sweetest wines.

In damp, temperate climates winemakers relied on Botrytis Cinerea, or Noble Rot to raise grape sugars. Some of the world’s most long-lived wines are made using moldy grapes. Botrytis Cinerea, a fungal infection, sucks the water out of the grapes, concentrating the sugars while imparting flavors of honey and apricot. The fungus requires specific conditions to produce noble rot. If it is too damp, the same fungus causes destructive grey rot. If it is too dry, it doesn’t develop at all.

Alcohol also acted as a preservative. Adding alcohol (typically brandy) before all the sugar was fermented effectively killed all the yeast, preserving the remaining sugars. Known as fortification, it was key to the development of port wine as well as vin doux naturels, marsala, and madeira.

A sweet treat

These uniquely-produced dessert wines, affectionately known as stickies by the Australians and Pudding Wine by the British, are labor intensive and expensive to produce. But they are like no other wines and deserve a place at the table. Not only do they have the ability to age forever in the bottle, but also, once opened they are good for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days for dry wines.

We are fortunate, here in Nevada County, to have some excellent examples of dessert wines. Szabo Vineyards offers an exotic, sweet Muscat. Montoliva delivers a traditionally produced, deliciously sweet and fruity Vin Santo. Sierra Starr makes an unctuous, sweet and richly botrytised Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend. Nevada City Winery offers a classic Ruby Port made from five traditional Portuguese port varieties.

All of these wines are available for tasting and sale in their respective tasting rooms. See the side bar for a more detailed description of these wines.

Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to revive old traditions and enjoy these local stickies. They are the perfect way to end a lovely meal. These dessert-friendly wines are magic with bleu cheese and fresh fruit like pears or apricots, a wonder with cheesecake, and simply divine with chocolate.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about him at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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