Though trends have moved towards drier wines in the past two to three decades, sweet wines remain important facets of well-rounded retail selections. The category is quite broad, encompassing entry-level SKUs from well-known brands, varietal table wines ranging from off-dry to lusciously sweet, and fortified dessert wines, but taking a look at a few of the top-selling sweet wine categories on Drizly indicates that carrying a range of sweet wines can bolster retail sales, particularly around major holidays.

Perceptions of Sweet Wine

Though sweet wine comprises a small percentage of overall wine sales on Drizly — even the biggest sweet wine subcategories hold less than one percent of wine share — it is nonetheless important in order to target a wide range of consumer preferences. “Many consumers, and especially Barefoot fans, have always gravitated toward sweet wines, like Moscato,” says Anna Bell, the vice president of marketing at E. & J. Gallo.

There is a wide range of sweet wine styles available on Drizly, from low-ABV, well-known wines like pink Moscato, to fortified wines like Port, Sherry, Marsala, and Madeira, to dessert wines like ice wine, Sauternes, Recioto della Valpolicella, and more. In fact, the sweet wine category on Drizly can be a bit complicated to measure as a whole — the Riesling category comprises both dry and sweet styles, for instance — so we’re diving into the three top-selling subcategories of sweet wine on the platform for insights.

Within the most prominent sweet wines on Drizly, pink Moscato and Port are the top-selling subcategories, comprising 45 percent and 42 percent of share, respectively. Sherry — which includes both dry and sweet styles — holds 8 percent of share, Marsala and ice wine/Eiswein hold 2 percent each, and Madeira comprises just one percent of share.

In 2020, Port and Sherry have both experienced year-over-year share growth (from .22 percent to .28 percent of wine share for Port, and from .04 percent to .05 percent of wine share for Sherry), while pink Moscato has experienced a slight share decline.

“I believe that Port is one of the few fortified wine categories that has managed to develop its consumer appeal, especially in the important U.S. market, against a generally declining trend for fortifieds as a whole,” says Rupert Symington, the CEO of Symington Family Estates, pointing to an increase in export value of shipments from Portugal (both fortified and table wines) over the past decade. “Port is no longer perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned, and has found a following amongst consumers who appreciate fully flavored wines that work equally well with dessert dishes or consumed on their own at the end of the meal.”

In Spain, after the 1970s and 1980s heyday of Cream Sherry in the U.S. and U.K., the category has experienced declining interest over the past two decades as interest turned more towards dry table wines. However, Cream Sherry may be reinventing itself. “Recently, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in the style,” says Ted Emerson, the director of marketing at González Byass USA, “due both to new ownership and investment in major brands, and in the resurgence of ‘comfort drinks’ during the pandemic.”

Which Sweet Wines are Selling?

Despite the high price tags for some sweet wine categories, like Port, Sherry, and Madeira, Drizly purchasers of sweet wines tend to look for value. The average unit price for sweet wines like Port, Sherry, and Moscato is 20.7 percent lower than the average unit price for wine on Drizly.

“This suggests that consumers lean towards more affordable options in this category compared to other popular wine categories like red wine or sparkling,” says Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights.

However, this has also been driven by the popularity of less expensive styles of iconic fortified wines, as well as perceptions of these wines being fit for more casual consumption. “Over several decades, Port has gone from a category that was highly polarized between vintage Port for the wealthy wine collector and inexpensive ruby for the cooking market,” says Symington, “to having a much more complete product range with a much more mainstream customer base.” The leading categories by both volume and value today are reserve ruby Ports and aged tawny Ports, he adds.

Drizly’s Best-Selling Sweet Wine SKUs, 2020

  1. Barefoot Pink Moscato
  2. Taylor Port 
  3. Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato Champagne 
  4. Sutter Home Pink Moscato 
  5. Taylor Fladgate Porto 10 Year Old Tawny 
  6. [ yellow tail ] Pink Moscato 
  7. Franzia® Pink Moscato Pink Wine
  8. Graham’s Six Grapes Porto
  9. Fonseca Bin #27 Porto
  10. Taylor Tawny Port

Because there are so many different styles of sweet wines — and so many styles even within a specific category of sweet wines — it’s important to carry a range of options. “Retailers should treat the sweet wine section with equal veneration to other table wines,” says Bell, “and offer a variety of price points, varieties, and size formats.”

Emerson recommends stocking well-known, beacon brands before stocking more niche ones. “These are brands with consumer equity and trust, which can have the positive impact of bringing new customers into the category,” he says.

Within the Port category, retailers should embrace the range of styles produced in order to appeal to a range of consumers. “Each [subcategory] represents a different nuance of Port, both in terms of quality levels and of aging processes,” says Symington, “and this has probably helped rather than hindered Port´s appeal by creating a certain mysterious fascination.” He recommends stocking a good premium ruby Port and a ten-year-old tawny, at the very least; a late-bottled vintage (LBV), a vintage Port, and a twenty-year-old tawny would be even better to maximize sales.

Among sweet Sherry subcategories, Emerson has noticed that Pedro Ximénez (PX) Sherry has become more popular in recent years. “It is one of the most approachable styles of Sherry due to its sweetness,” he says, “and it’s easy for consumers to understand as a dessert wine; other styles are harder to categorize.”

Who is Buying Sweet Wines?

Similar to sparkling wine, sweet wine purchasing can be very occasion-based, particularly among fortified and dessert wine categories. In 2020, Port and Sherry share on Drizly both saw spikes in November and December, suggesting that consumers are using these beverages to celebrate. 

“This spike is likely driven by holiday celebrations as an after-meal drink served with desserts,” says Paquette. Pink Moscato, on the other hand, experienced its highest share gains in spring and early summer, indicating that it could be a strong seller in the coming months.

However, it’s important to carry these wines year-round. “In the U.S. the sales are far less seasonal, and we see an interesting level of repeat sales throughout the year, even in the summer months,” says Symington. Emerson echoes a similar phenomenon, noting that Cream Sherry maintains a solid sales performance year-round.

Sweet wines also appeal to consumer age groups in different ways. Pink Moscato consumers skew younger, with the majority of buyers aged 34 and under. “Our Barefoot Fruitscato fans are typically younger legal age consumers who are new to wine,” says Bell. “They are diverse and interested in discovering new products and brands.”

Port and Sherry consumers, on the other hand, tend to skew slightly older, which is partially due to the higher average price of fortified wines. “[The typical Port consumers] are probably individuals in the 35-plus age bracket who … now have a reasonable disposal income to spend on the things they enjoy,” says Symington.

However, new consumers are discovering sweet wines as well. “Today, drier and sweeter styles of Sherry are gaining younger drinkers looking for relatively unexplored wine styles and interesting food pairings,” says Emerson. “It remains to be seen if younger drinkers will adopt the Cream style, but it’s certainly a goal.”

Examining Sweet Wine’s Sales Potential

Though sweet wines often get less attention than dry wines, they represent a strong segment of wine sales that retailers shouldn’t ignore. “The Cream Sherry market at the moment is performing well, above the wine category as a whole, so we see a strong future,” says Emerson.

Strong holiday sales trends in Q4 of 2020 also indicate strong sweet wine sales ahead of Valentine’s Day, an occasion that many consumers associate with desserts, candy, and other sweet foods. “We anticipate with occasions like Valentine’s Day around the corner and many consumers looking for ways to make at-home celebrations special, these sweet wines will continue to drive sales in Q1,” says Paquette.

Echoes Bell, “We see sweet wine sales spike during all major holidays, which of course includes Valentine’s Day.”

Sweet wines can also help retailers attract new customers over time. “Much like how other beverage types, like coffee, draw in new customers with sweeter profiles, Barefoot anticipates the same trajectory with sweet wine,” says Bell.

Though fortified wines may not experience the same demand as the average bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, the higher average price point makes the slower-moving inventory worthwhile. “Port is certainly an important wine for retailers to carry,” says Symington, “and the higher per bottle margins more than make up for a slower rotation than more commercial table wines.” Symington also predicts that the average price point for Port will continue to rise as consumers better understand the value of the category and the investments that go into these products.

Emerson sees Sherry as a similar opportunity for retailers to drive revenue. “[Stocking Sherry] shows a consultative approach to the wine category, illustrating an interest in lesser known categories,” he says, “and an opportunity to upsell incremental bottle in addition to those ‘must have categories.’”

Looking ahead, brands expect sweet wines to gain even more strength in the market. In the same way that dry styles of Sherry have garnered new attention as cocktail ingredients, sweet Sherries are now being embraced by bartenders as well, which could translate to retail sales as consumers bring mixology home amidst the pandemic. “[PX Sherry] makes for an excellent addition to many cocktails,” says Emerson. “It can be used to replace simple syrup in many recipes. Not only does it give the sweetness, but it gives a much wider depth of flavor.”

In order to maximize revenue going forward, retailers should consider taking another look at that sweet wine shelf and seeking out opportunities to optimize sales.