Get Over Your Fear of Sweet Wine, Be Bold With Sauternes

Sweet wines used to be the most famous wines in the world. Offering them was a king’s privilege, a symbol of power. Diamond Jim Brady drank them with thick rare steaks.

They’ve long been out-of-fashion afterthoughts. Never mind that plenty of drinkers regularly and happily indulge in expensive sugary cocktails.

Given this kind of disconnect, isn’t it time for a sweet wine revival? Can these uncool wines become trendy?

Those questions were on my mind as I sampled some fabulous, little-known Rivesaltes wines from the Roussillon region in the south of France.

Lionel Lavail, the general manager of Maison Cazes, uncorked vintages dating from 1999 back to 1931 recently at New York’s The Modern restaurant.

Rich-textured and spicy, with layers of apricot, chocolate and candied citrus peel flavors, these are some of the most distinctive wines available -- and younger vintages are a bargain.

Roussillon lies just north of the Spanish border, between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. “We’re neither French nor Spanish, we’re Catalan,” insisted Lavail, who flies the red and yellow striped flag of Catalonia above his home.

Ninety percent of France’s vins doux naturels are produced in this sunny, hot region; the best come from sub-regions Rivesaltes, Maury and Banyuls.

All are fortified, like port, which means neutral alcohol is added during the fermentation process to preserve some of the natural sugar in the final wine.

Oak Casks

As we sip and savor, Lavail explains that Maison Cazes ages its several versions (ambre, tuile and grenat) of Rivesaltes for at least seven years in large old oak casks until the wine mellows and is ready to drink.

Rivesaltes can be made from various grapes, but Maison Cazes uses grenache blanc and grenache noir from old vines in biodynamically-farmed vineyards that are swept by seven traditional winds with names like Tramontane and Canigounenc. Donkeys, the symbol of Catalonia, help plow.

The 1999, a golden-colored ambre made from white grenache, reminded me of a butterscotch brownie, with spice and orange flavors ($33), while the apricot-colored 1995 is more intense and elegant, with hints of cocoa and honey ($30).

Sugary Longevity

The stunners were the older vintages, all bottled last year from single casks in the winery’s cellars as part of Collection Cazes. “The idea,” said Lavail, “was to show how the wines age.” The sweetness acts as a preservative, so the wines last and last.

It was tough to pick a favorite.

The apricot-toned 1933 (the year of the first singing telegram and the repeal of Prohibition) was amazingly juicy, bright and savory ($445); the caramel-colored 1945 powerful and chocolaty ($375); the round, elegant 1949 had a strong spice and tobacco taste ($350); the 1954, from grenache noir grapes, was like a lovely old tawny port, with a taste of dried plums ($255); the lighter, lemon-and-spice 1960 ($220) would make a fine aperitif.

Drinking Rivesaltes throughout a four-course lunch, though, was too much of a good thing.

Black Truffles

With the succulent duck topped with black trumpet marmalade, I would have preferred red Burgundy. Still, the wines’ notes of orange and lush texture were perfect with a creamy pat of foie gras terrine, and the complex sweet flavors softened the salty, tangy Roquefort studded with black truffles.

These splendid Rivesaltes may be an even harder sell than Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Barsacs.

Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millesimes, which owns a half-dozen top wineries, says its Chateau Suduiraut is one of the most successful in Sauternes, yet it doesn’t make a profit every year. “At tastings in Tokyo, people go crazy over it,” Seely said. “But they don’t buy.”

Fear of sweetness affects a surprising number of wine drinkers. Many who like to drink sweet worry about looking hopelessly unsophisticated in a world where dry wines predominate, while others equate sweet with cheap, as if these opulent elixirs have something in common with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. They don’t.

Wineries everywhere from Sauternes to Hungary’s Tokaji are hanging on to their sweet traditions anyway.

They have reason to hope.

Sweet Tooth

At London’s International Wine Fair last month, drinks analyst Jonny Forsyth of global market research firm Mintel pointed out that sweet-toothed millennials in the U.S. are beginning to impact drink trends. Think of the popularity of sweet moscato. Sales in the U.S. rose 70 percent in 2011 according to Nielsen data, and another 33 percent by volume in 2012, according to California’s Wine Institute.

More and more restaurants, like New York’s Cafe Boulud, offer more interesting, complex sweet wines by the glass, making it easy to sample them as aperitifs or with dessert.

Maison Cazes expressed its faith in the future by buying a sweet wine estate in nearby Banyuls last December.

“A few weeks ago,” Lavail said, with a slow smile, “We were pouring our Rivesaltes wines with spicy cuisine in Chengdu. We’re booming in China.”

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on the Venice Biennale and Jeremy Gerard on theater.