Why Sweet Wine Should be on Your List
A lot of people say they don’t like sweet wine, and it’s understandable why, because some bad versions are really, really bad. We can all likely tell tales of sweet wine drinking gone wrong (at least I can - hello, and goodbye forever, strawberry flavored Boones Mill!!) But before giving into flashbacks of freshman year and skipping this article, rest assured that the wines we discuss below take great skill to create and are deep, layered, and complex. Dessert wines are perfect for wintery nights, and for the kick-off of Winelala’s Winter Edition articles!
While all wine is a reflection of the land, the grapes, and the winemaker from which it came, sweet wine in particular is a celebration of the human element. Different production techniques result in different sweet styles and these wines can be red, white, or pink. Well done sweet wine can literally and quantifiably be some of the most satisfying wine in the world.
According to Wine Spectator, wine is technically considered sweet if it has over 30 grams per liter (g/l) of residual sugar (rs). 30 g/l rs sounds like a lot, and it is, when considering that dry wine usually has 12 or less grams per liter. But for comparison, there are 108 grams of sugar in a liter of coke and around 22 grams of sugar in an eight ounce glass of orange juice. Some grocery store level wines are close to being classified as sweet because they contain added sugar and other ingredients to smooth out acid or tannin or to add richness or weight. Apothic Red and many of the YellowTails would be examples of these, but we are focusing specifically on the dessert category with residual sugar counts generally above 100 g/l rs.
Sugar counts in wine can be complicated since there are different kinds of sugars present in grapes, some of which are fermentable and some of which are unfermentable, and because of how those sugars interact with other factors that affect perceived sweetness, like glycerine, alcohol, acid, and tannin. In our Coke and OJ example above, you can see that higher sugar counts do not necessarily equate with aggressive sweetness because of the balancing effects of acid.
Dessert wine is made all over the world, but no article on the topic would be complete without the mention of Chateau d’Yquem, the most famous luxury sweet wine producer of all. Yquem is located in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux. In 1855, wine making chateaux in the Medoc (also in Bordeaux) and Sauternes were formally classified at the request of Napoleon III, meaning that some chateaux were qualified, based on market prices of their wines and on their general reputations, as Grand Cru Classés (‘grand crus’ or GC’s). The 61 producers who met GC criteria were then subcategorized into First through Fifth Growths, or as ‘Premiers Crus’, ‘Duxiemes Crus’ and so on. Just five chateaux - Chateau Margaux, Ch. Latour, Ch. Lafite Rothschild, Ch. Mouton- Rothschild, and Ch. Haut-Brion - comprise the entirety of the Premier Cru category in the Medoc. These names are also easily recognizable as some of the most prestigious in wine today, responsible for bottles that routinely set records for prices and rarity.
The Medoc rankings were only based on dry red wines, though. Producers from Sauternes and Barsac were considered for their sweet whites and were ranked into the same GC categories - except for Chateau d’Yquem. Yquem was deemed so incredible that it received its own category, ‘Premier Cru Superior’, meaning that it, a sweet white wine producer, outranks Premier Cru producers. Yquem was the only producer to earn a place in the Superior category of the 1855 Classification.
Yquem’s wines are an embodiment of a botrytized style. This means that the grapes used in the wine were infected with botrytis cinerea or ‘noble rot,’ a fungus that causes them to shrivel and the sugars and flavors within to concentrate. Yquem’s blends consist of sauvignon blanc, semillon, and muscadelle grapes, each of which is white. Grapes are picked by hand, berry by berry, in several passes through the vineyards, and tasting notes usually contain words like flowers, honey, vanilla, lemon curd, orange marmalade, and nuts, that develop into deeper flavors such as caramel and butterscotch as the wine ages. Yquem is silky and smooth, rich and balanced, and usually has between 120 and 140 g/l rs, and correspondingly high acid levels that keep the wine balanced and clean.
Many other producers from around the world make wines in this style and can rival Yquem for quality. Most notably perhaps are Hungary’s Tokaji made from furmint grapes and Germany’s Trockenbeerenauselese made from riesling, both of which have many of the same notes as listed above.
Dessert wine can be made using techniques other than botrytis, of course. Botrytized wine is just really popular because it’s generally really delicious. The following styles are a reflection of their vineyards, growing conditions, and especially craftsmanship, considering the time and precision required for each.
Enjoy these with cheese, savory desserts, or make them their own dessert!
Arrested fermentation - this is when the winemaker stops alcoholic fermentation of the grapes in order to preserve some fermentable sugars before they are converted to alcohol. There are several different methods for doing this, but pulling it off properly and well is a celebration of technique. Some higher end German rieslings (Auslese and Spatlese levels) are made this way, and port wines technically fall into this category, but fermentation is stopped by the addition of alcohol (fortification).
Botrytis infected - discussed above. Examples to look for in addition to Sauternes, Tokaji, and Germany include Bonnezeaux and Monbazillac from southwest France and Vouvray from the Loire Valley. Grapes used range based on region.
Dried grape wine - These can be ‘late harvest’ wines meaning grapes have hung on vines long enough to become very ripe then dry out and partially raisin, or can be from grapes that have been picked and dried out on mats. Either way the juice is concentrated and in small quantities. See ‘passito’, below.
Fortified wine - We are specifically talking about port, sweet sherries, and some of the Vin Doux Naturels (VDNs) of southern France. Fermentation is stopped in these wines by the addition of alcohol, which leaves behind about 100 g/l rs. Examples are Banyuls and Beaumes de Venice, both from France, and usually made from muscat or grenache.
Ice wine - Specialties of Canada and Germany, ice wine (eiswein) is made from grapes that have become frozen when outdoor temperatures drop to 17-19F. In Canada, this must take place for three nights in a row. Grapes are picked between midnight and 2am so that they remain frozen, and are pressed to release a concentrated sugary liquid that is prepared for fermentation. Great examples come from Ontario and Mosel and can be made from Cab Franc, Riesling, and Vidal Blanc. Ice wine is a risky and expensive style to produce since producers must declare their intentions in advance.
Passito - This is an Italian wine-making style where grapes are partially dried on straw mats. As evaporation occurs, flavors and sugars concentrate. Grapes are pressed after three to six months and yield rich, concentrated, sweet juice which is then fermented. Many passitos spend time in oak to coax further complexity and depth and both red and white wines can be made in this style. Examples of wines made in this method are Reciota del Valpolicella, Recioto di Soave, and Vin Santo made from corvina, rondinella, and molinara; garganega and trebbiano; and trebbiano, malvasia, and sangiovese, respectively.
A writer for one of the big wine mags once said that a good Sauternes changes a man, but I’d like to rephrase that a bit to say ‘a good sweet wine changes you’. Sweet wine exposes you to new levels of interplay between intensities of flavor that refine and sophisticate your palate and therefore the rest of you. This is why sweet wines should be on your list, whether that list is Wines to Try, Wines to Buy, or Wines to Love.
Dessert wines aren’t as easy to drink as dry wine in terms of second and third glasses because of their intensity and persistence, so small doses are just what you need for a fantastic and indulgent finish to a meal or end to a day.