Sweet red wine is a risky business. One wrong move and your wine turns into bland alcoholic compote.
But who drinks the sweet red stuff? The target audience for these wines is vague. You can’t say sweet reds are hyped or command high prices in general. Overall, these wines are in many ways an unknown land – which makes exploring them all the more interesting.
The way we perceive sweetness in wines changes with the level of alcohol. Lately I had a chance to compare a naturally sweet wine with a fortified one. The latter will stay a mystery for you even on a label level – unless you read Cyrillic, of course – so you will have to trust me completely in my review of this one!
It comes from the Crimean peninsular – the place where I was born, which for the majority of people in the UK only rings a bell in association with the Crimean war. Even at that time wines were made in Crimea – and not bad ones. When a few years ago Bonham’s auction house had London sales of wines from Massandra, the best and oldest wine producer in Crimea, we talked about the featured lots with the auction house’s wine experts. I was pleased to hear that they appreciated the wines – especially fortified and dessert ones.
But I couldn’t disagree either with the point about two main problems with the local wines. Firstly, wines in the styles of Sherries, Madeiras and Ports – that are signature Crimean wines – are hopelessly unfashionable now. To succeed in selling them even most famous producers from Sherry, Madeira and Portugal need clear marketing strategy and serious budgets. The second problem with Crimean wines is marketing. It’s not the strongest side of local winemakers that seem to be forever stuck in the Soviet-era mentality.
All that doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of Crimean wines. Try sweet and fortified ones, if you have a chance – especially the ones from Massandra, the winery that used to supply Russian Tsar’s wine cellar. Sadly Massandra’s UK website offers to buy only 3 wines from their huge range. The best one is ‘White Muscat of Red Stone’ – one of my favourite dessert wines of all times. But one can say I’m not very objective here since in this wine I can smell not only aromas of tea rose, tangerine and vanilla, but also my own happy memories and long summers by the sea.
The wine that I tried a few days ago was brought to me by a friend (thanks, Medved). It’s called ‘Ay-Serez’ (the name of the local river) and is made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bastardo aged for 2 years in barrels.
This type of dessert wine in the former USSR was traditionally known as Cahors. It has nothing to do with the appellation in South West of France. The word became known in Russian language thanks to the Emperor Peter I of Russia who loved Cahors – so the wine was adopted as sacramental by the Russian Orthodox Church. With time the origin of Cahors was forgotten and in the wine making countries of former USSR (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) the word ‘Cahors’ was used to indicate the style of wine – a dessert wine made from black grapes. A traditional aspect of making Cahors was heating a portion of grape juice to concentrate aromas and colour. This technique explains richness of ‘Ay-Serez’ which has very deep, almost black colour, velvety texture and aromas of chocolate, coffee and prunes. You could find some resemblance with a good ruby Port here, though‘Ay-Serez’ is more rounded and intense than most ruby Ports.
If you’d rather have something lighter, my other favourite red sweet is 2009 Recioto della Valpolicella Domini Veneti. It’s Venetian wine made only from the ripest grapes which are left to dry for weeks so the wine gets extra concentration.
I tried this Recioto for the first time in the end of November and even now it brings some Christmas memories. I guess it’s due to the link we often have with sweet spice, cinnamon, clove, raisins and Christmas season. All these festive and homey aromas can be found in this wine that beautifully combines intensity with lightness – it’s only 12,5% vol. which is lower than many still dry wines on the market.