Sweet Wines: A Noble Pursuit

08 December, 2014

One of the more successful port innovations has been the development of Noval Black by Quinta do Noval.
Martin Skelton is MD of Gonzalez Byass in the UK, which distributes the wines of Noval. “We have found in the past five years there is less interest in entry-level tawnies and rubies, and in the past year we have doubled our sales in Noval Black,” he says. 

“This is packaging made simple – striking and interesting, for people who aren’t particularly interested in the blend of varieties or whether the product has been foot-trodden or not. Despite all that, it is made with vintage quality grapes.” 

There seems to be increasing interest in the top ports. Skelton reports that, after the general declaration of 2011, Noval made an eccentric declaration in 2012, and “we have never sold vintage Port faster”. He says: “When we sell our allocation we go back and ask for more, we manage to get a few cases but it is becoming more difficult. There’s new interest in vintage port in other markets.” 

New destinations

Symington agrees there’s interest from new export destinations. “The UK, US, Canada and Scandinavia are all key premium markets and doing well. Poland, Russia, Angola and Brazil are the trending markets.” 

What about Asia? Skelton says the big Asian markets have moved on amazingly since he started travelling to them in 1992. “There are great collectors of wine in Hong Kong and Singapore who have moved on from just Burgundy and Bordeaux, and some of them now want a great collection of vintage ports. They particularly like the fact that there are declared years, and some of these correspond with lucky years or birth years and that some years don’t exist creates more intrigue.” 

“I am very confident about the future of port,” says Symington. “We bought two new quintas in the past two years – many think we are mad. The future is good but it will be very different from the past.”

The sherry market is smaller than that of port, but is still significant, with a production of 4.6m 9-litre cases last year. Most sherry starts its life as a dry wine, but can be sweetened with the addition of Pedro Ximenez, a sweet sherry made from drying grapes in the sun after harvesting until they raisin. 

Pedro Ximenez, often referred to as PX, is increasingly popular as a sweet sherry in its own right, with its rich, concentrated, incredibly sweet raisiny flavours. “Sherry has two big markets – the home market and the UK – which are about the same size,” says Gonzalez Byass’ Skelton. 

“The Spanish market used to be utterly dominated by fino and manzanilla [the lightest, driest sherry styles], and suddenly saw a surge in interest in the sweet sherries in the 1990s and early noughties, driven by Canasta Cream (Williams & Humbert) and Solera 1847 (a sweet oloroso from Gonzalez Byass). The market is still there but hasn’t grown much since then.” 

He adds that the new interest in sweet wines in Spain is varietal PX. 

“The UK is about 85% sweet or medium sherries. Of that, by far the largest element is dark cream and pale cream,” he says. “About half of the sweet market is Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Croft Original, and the other half is supermarket own-label.” 

Beyond this, Skelton is encouraged by what is happening on the edges of the sweet sherry market. “We are finding quite a lot of success with PX in the London market especially,” he says, “both in the new wave of stylish eateries and also international restaurants. PX is a useful style as part of a repertoire to offer for desserts. Another thing that’s quite encouraging is that most supermarkets have created high-end own-label ranges, and certainly Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference, Tesco Finest and Waitrose Premium range have really well made, high-end sweet wines in them that do well.”

Space doesn’t permit an adequate discussion of other sweet wine styles, such as Vin Doux Naturels from the south of France, the Muscats from Samos in Greece, the beguiling sweet Madeiras, Australia’s amazing liqueur Muscats and Topaques, the thrilling German prädikat Rieslings and even the commercially successful Moscatos from the US. 

But it does seem that with a new generation of drinkers, more open than their predecessors to some sweetness in their wines, there’s still an important – and even a growing – market for sweet wines globally, and that they aren’t set to be consigned to the bin of history just yet. 

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