How to Find Sweet Red Wine
Find out what "sweet" really means when it comes to red wines, and how to find one that fits your palate.
When it comes to defining sweet red wine, it's a matter of technicality — and taste. In the wine world, a sweet wine is defined as one that actually has residual sugar. But many of us, when we talk about sweet wines, are probably describing ones that are fruit-forward and jammy. Some people even think all sweet wines are cloying, without any nuance or complexity (not true!). But wherever you stand and whatever your palate, there's a sweet red wine for you.
Defining sweet red wine
Technically speaking, sweet wines are defined as those with high amounts of residual sugar, more than 121 grams per liter. Within that category, there are varying degrees of sweetness. "There are a lot of wines, like gamay or merlot, that some would perceive as sweet based on the amount of fruit that comes through in the wine," says Ashley Malinowski, general manager and beverage director at Crawford and Son and Jolie in Raleigh, North Carolina. "Other red wines have actual sugar present in the wine and are a true embodiment of a sweet red wine." She points to Italy for classic examples, including dessert wines like Sagrantino Passito or Recioto della Valpolicella, and semisweet reds like brachetto and lambrusco.
Fortified wines, in which a spirit such as brandy is added during fermentation, also fall into the sweet red wine category. Examples include Port from Portugal as well as Maury or Banyuls, both from the Roussillon region in southern France.
Sweet reds to try
Michael Kennedy, a vintner, sommelier and founder of the Component Wine Company, favors Brachetto d'Acqui, an Italian sweet red wine that hails from Piedmont in the foothills of the Alps. "The brachetto grape is a red grape, and in Piedmont it is made into a fizzy, slightly sweet and ultra-tasty red wine," Kennedy says. "This is a powerhouse in pairings, being more versatile than many reds and great with everything from charcuterie to more elegant preparations of pork and pastas."
Lambrusco, another slightly effervescent sweet red wine from Northern Italy, is one of Malinowski's personal favorites. "Not to be confused with the overly sweet, syrupy, mass-produced lambrusco of the '70s, lambrusco can actually be a super-tasty and balanced sparkling wine that is approachable enough for all palates," she says. "Depending on the variety of lambrusco grape, some wines can be light, crisp and floral, while others can be dark, sweet and intense, and then there's almost everything in between. It is this diversity that makes lambrusco a fun wine for sweet red wine drinkers to branch out and try."
When it comes to Port, there are two categories: ruby and tawny. Malinowski explains that the primary difference is the aging requirements. Ruby Ports are bottled when the wine is quite young, allowing it to retain its fruit characteristics, whereas tawny Ports are aged in wood longer, allowing the wines to settle and glean more spice-forward characteristics from the wood.
"Typically, residual sugar is comparable between both ruby and tawny, so, technically speaking, neither is sweeter," says Malinowski. "But from a flavor perspective, ruby Ports can come across sweeter based on the amount of fruit flavors that show through the wine versus in a tawny Port."
Dry reds that drink sweet
Just because a wine is dry in style doesn't mean you can't find ones that evoke the "sweet" characteristics your palate craves.
"A lot of people think they don't like dry wine because they are imagining something super tannic like a Chianti, but there are a lot of wines that have great fruit expression with well-balanced tannins," explains Shannon McGaughey, who co-owns Vivian in Asheville, North Carolina. "If you usually drink a California zinfandel, try primitivo, a 100% zinfandel from Southern Italy that has nice plum, raisin and fig flavors juxtaposed with some nice leather and tobacco. Or try a tempranillo or garnacha from Rioja or Ribera del Duero in Spain — there's a range of flavors and styles here, but often they're full of luscious Bing cherries, cedar-y oak, vanilla and baking spices and have a super-velvety texture."
Don't discount zinfandel, either. "The poor zinfandel grape has long been dragged through the mud of wine snobs because of its association with the pink, cloyingly sweet 'white zinfandel' made famous in liquor stores and gas stations," Kennedy says. "However, it is a truly brilliant grape with immense possibility for complexity and range. Although the actual sugar content is quite low, the fruitiness and zingy-ness please a sweeter palate and a dry palate alike."