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The wines of this group constitute about three fourths of California's wine production. They are sometimes called "Sweet" wines and although most of them have a high sugar content, there are dry types among them as well and all the variations in between. In this Guide they are grouped together as "Aperitif and Dessert Wines" for the simple reason that they are all used either as aperitifs before the meal, or as so-called "dessert wines."
The term "aperitif" is used in preference to "appetizer," as the latter can also mean light, appetite-inducing foods. The expression "dessert wine" traditionally means that the wine in question is suitable with the dessert on account of its sweetness. In practice such wines are served even more frequently for light entertainment in the afternoon or evening. For this reason they are also called "occasional wines," "entertainment wines," and "refreshment wines."
It must be noted that some of the sweeter dessert wines are commonly consumed, both in the United States and abroad, as aperitifs, notably the ports, the sweeter sherries, and sweet vermouth. Customs vary according to national and individual taste. Both the traditional service of each type of wine will be indicated as well as its more general use.
Most aperitif and dessert wines contain about ao per cent alcohol by volume. Some kinds, with a slightly lower percentage of around 18 per cent alcohol, are produced especially for sacramental purposes of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and for certain states with local restrictions. The latter are labeled with the word "Light" preceding the name of the wine, such as "Light Sherry" and "Light Part." Some growers advocate the marketing of such wines for the general public, requiring first a change in the present laws.
The appellation of origin and the varietal designation are not nearly as usual with the California aperitif and dessert wines as with the table types. Most of them are labeled simply as "California" wines and with the exception, in some brands, of the Palomino, from which all the finer sherries are derived, of the Tinta varieties used for some excellent ports, of the Muscat Frontignan, which yields outstanding muscats, and of a few minor instances, mention of varietal derivation is absent.
The answer to the question of which are the best California aperitif and dessert wines lies, therefore, mostly with the few growers or producers marketing the varietal types. High-quality wines are produced in the great inland valley region, in Southern California, and in the northern coastal region, often from inland valley grapes. Standard-quality wines form the bulk of production, with Fresno and Lodi the two most famous centers of the inland valley region.
The finest of the California aperitif and dessert wines-even if more correctly judged on their own merits-compare favorably with imported products of the same class and are then, like the California table and sparkling wines, better buys, as they are less costly.
The standard-quality wines are mostly good, sound, inexpensive wines which do not pretend to do anything more than to fulfill their own place in worthy fashion. The name of a producer of standing, nationally advertised, is a useful guide on the label.
The aperitif and dessert wines of California are grouped in the Guide according to their main classifications. The three most important ones, by far, are California Sherry, California Port, and California Muscat and Muscatel. Two minor groups are formed by California Angelica and Tokay. Vermouth is in a classification by itself.