The wine world is, by and large, ruled by dry table wines, but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when, sugar being a rare commodity, sweet wines were the most coveted in the world. Russian czars were so enamored of Hungarian Tokaji that they fortified the region militarily to ensure that their supply wouldn’t be interrupted. Napoleon’s favorite wine was Klein Constantia, the famous sweet wine of South Africa. Yet today, awash in unctuous drinks from cola to chocolate milk, sweet wines are less appreciated, even though the skills required to grow and vinify them are prodigious.
There are many different styles of sweet wines, and we will profile them all as a crash course—a sugar rush, perhaps—in some of the world’s great sweet wines. Consider it a style guide as well: Many sweet wines are on the expensive side, so some insight to the various styles will help ensure that you won’t sour on your purchase.
A great many sweet wines, such as Port and Madeira, are fortified, meaning that they’ve had spirit added to stop the fermentation and preserve the last of the grapes’ sugar. Those wines are wonderful, but here we’ll be concentrating on naturally sweet wines, ones that require no additions.
To preserve, concentrate and express sugar is the modus operandi of the winemaker. The trick is separating the water from the sugar in a grape to concentrate the sweetness and heighten flavor. There are many different strategies for accomplishing this feat, each offering a different pleasure for the drinker’s sweet tooth.
One of the most bizarre methods arguably makes the greatest sweet wines in the world: using a fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Yes, fungi can be abhorrent when they lead to athlete’s foot and ringworm. But, let us remember, they also produce the much sought-after truffle and, in the case of wine, what is known as noble rot. Noble rot occurs only under specific temperature and humidity conditions, and even this must occur at the right time of the season. Otherwise, botrytis just produces rot, which is a pest. But in the right conditions, the botrytis removes up to half the water from the grapes while concentrating sugars, acids, minerals and other flavorful compounds.
Grape bunches afflicted by noble rot look withered and inedibly moldy, similar to fuzzy grapes, but the juice inside is magical. Not only are the grapes’ inherent flavors concentrated, but they are complexed with notes of honey, vanilla and spice.
Look no further than perhaps the most famous kind of sweet wine, Sauternes, composed mostly of Sémillon with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauternes vineyards lie just south of Bordeaux in the vicinity of the Garonne river, which provides the necessarily humid microclimate to encourage the development of noble rot more years than not. Château d’Yquem is the most famous name in Sauternes,though there are many others that are excellent.
Sauternes is delicious when young but becomes mind-blowing with age. Any wine lover needs to make sure that at some time in life they enjoy a glass of 25-year-old Sauternes, as the flavor complexity becomes astounding. With notes of honey, spice, earth, stones, rain, leaves, moss—the rotaided wines become a panopoly of aromas and tastes.
Sauternes doesn’t have a trademark on botrytis, however. You can find its magically transformative powers in many sweet wine regions. There’s Barsac and Loupiac, for instance, which are neighbors to Sauternes, but there are also many other places. North of Sauternes, in the Loire Valley, for instance, come some of France’s most wonderful, and least known, botrytis wines: Quarts de Chaume. Made from Chenin Blanc, these wines are, in the words of sommelier David Rosoff of LA’s Osteria Mozza, “the closest thing a super sweet wine can come to being savory.” Indeed, the flavors in a well-aged Quarts de Chaume can be outrageous—papaya, lanolin, peach and white flowers, all coming on a sugary wave balanced by magnificent acidity. To the east, Alsace has its Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) wines, predominantly from Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.
Austria is also well-known for its botrytized wines, which come from the Burgenland region, where the humidity is supplied by a great shallow lake, called theNeusiedlersee, which provides a great environment for botrytis to form on the Pinot Blanc and many other varieties used here, almost every year.
Not far away is Hungary, which makes the aforementioned Tokaji wines from botrytized Furmint, Hárslevelú´ and four other approved grapes. Tokaji is a slow-fermented long-aged wine known for its deep amber color and rich caramel and honey flavors. It’s also famous for producing the world’s sweetest wine, Aszú Essencia, which is only made in the greatest years from grapes that are individually selected and may contain only a few drops of intensely concentrated juice. Aszú Essencia is aged in cask for 10–15 years and often in bottle for another five before being slowly released. Unsurprisingly, it is incredibly expensive—liquid gold, indeed. Viscous, almost like molasses, it is often served on a spoon, not in a glass.
Botrytis also plays a role in Germany, another country famous for its sweet wines, whose sweetest wines are known for their lengthy names—beerenauslese (BA) and trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). These names denote wines that are made from individually selected grapes, with TBA being rarer than BA because it is made from the grapes most exceptionally shriveled by botrytis. For that reason, these wines are expensive.
We can look to Germany for the invention of another method of sweet wine production: ice. In cool growing regions, allowing grapes to freeze on the vine concentrates the sugar, much as botrytis does. When frozen grapes are pressed, the frozen water remains in the grape while the thick, syrupy grape juice can be pressed out. Botrytized grapes are rarely used here, as it’s important that grapes be intact to survive the intense conditions. Grape pickers must be hale too, as plucking grapes in the subfreezing temperatures of December or January is no easy feat.
While German eiswein is justly famous, Canada is also a great source. Inniskillin, the most famous Canadian producer, makes wines from frozen expanses in Ontario’s Niagara Penninsula and in British Columbia, using not only Riesling, but other grapes like Vidal and Cabernet Franc. Icewine is known not so much for its complexity, but for its purity, precision and incredibly racy acidity. It’s as intense as it sounds.
In southern wine regions not blessed with ice and botrytis, the method of removing water to concentrate the sugar in grapes is akin to the way we dry clothes on a line, using sun and warm air. In Italy, you’ll find wines made with the passito method, which is simply taking ripe grapes and drying them on mats until a certain portion of the water has evaporated. Passito wines are found all over Italy, from a multitude of grapes, but the most famous is the Recioto della Valpolicella. Made from the same grapes as Amarone table wine, these dried red grapes produce an amazing red sweet wine, whose sugar is balanced not only against acid, but also tannin and color. Tuscany is closely associated with another dried-grape wine, Vin Santo, which is aged in wood for years to attain its deep nut and raisin notes.
Italy is also home to two of the most charming sweet wines on the planet, irresistible not only for their sugar, but for their fizz. Both come from the Piedmont region. Moscato d’Asti is almost clear in color and gently frizzante and tastes of pears and peaches. Low in alcohol, light in body, it’s a lovely sip. Brachetto d’Aqui, on the other hand is pinkish red, and tastes unabashedly like liquid strawberry and raspberry with a hint of rose. Few producers make it, but served chilled like Moscato d’Asti, it’s a true delight.
Sweet wines can be overlooked, but many are powerful and intense, and worth seeking out. Now that you have the low down, go out and find these treasures for yourself.
It might seem simple, but one of the most challenging questions that comes with sweet wines is how and when to drink them. Notice that we’ve avoided calling these wines “dessert wines” because it’s problematic to serve them with desserts. “The challenge with sweet wines,” says Andrew Green, wine director of the Bay Area’s Village Pub, Spruce and Café Des Amis, “is that the wine must always be sweeter than the dessert.When that doesn’t happen, both end up tasting bad. The problem for most people at home is that they haven’t tasted the wine before they open it and may find that it’s not sweet enough.”
Likewise, the complexity and beauty of many sweet wines is dulled when placed next to a sweet dessert. So, one thing to remember is that it’s always okay to serve a sweet wine solo. In fact, many times they’re best enjoyed that way. That said, there are some lovely and classic savory pairings that can enhance both wine and food. One of the most famous is, of course, with a seared foie gras, whose texture is so unctuously rich that the acid-richness combination of a botrytized wine like Sauternes is divine.
Another classic application of sweet wines with unsweet food is with cheese, whose saltiness and creaminess plays right into the acidity and sweetness of the wine. Aged, hard cheeses like Gruyère or Comté are great with sweet German wines as well as Barsac from France and Vin Santo from Italy. Most people think blue cheeses like Roquefort are meant for Port (a fortified wine), but the bright fruit of a Sauternes lifts the salty bite of the cheese.
Fruit and less sugary fruit and nut tarts make great backdrops for sweet wines too. For instance, try Quarts de Chaume with a fig or apricot tart. Moscato d’Asti sparkles even more brightly when served with fresh peaches and vanilla ice cream.
Chocolate, vexing for many wine lovers, is brought into focus by two wines discussed here. Brachetto d’Acqui, that red sparkler from Italy, will rescue even the most cloying milk chocolate. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, can find no better match than Recioto della Valpolicella, whose pithy crimson depths are perfect for the chocolate’s bittersweet earthiness.
Sweet wines, in general, should be served in small portions and slightly chilled. They’re just too powerful, too mind-blowing to be taken in any other fashion. So savor each judicious sip, for the grape is nature’s greatest vessel for sugar and the lengths winemakers go to obtain and concentrate it are extreme.
France: Château Climens (Barsac), Château d’Yquem (Sauternes), Château Rieussec (Sauternes), Château Suduiraut (Sauternes), Domaine des Baumard, (Quarts de Chaume), Hugel (Alsace), Trimbach (Alsace), Zind-Humbrecht (Alsace)
Hungary: Disznókö (Tokaji), Patricius (Tokaji), Royal Tokaji (Tokaji)
Germany: Dr. Loosen (Mosel), Dr. Pauly Bergweiler (Mosel), Joh. Jos. Prüm (Mosel), Müller-Catoir (Pfalz), Schloss Johannisberger (Rheingau), Schloss Saarstein (Saar)
Austria: Bründlmayer (Kamptal), Ernst Triebaumer (Burgenland), Feiler-Artinger (Burgenland), Kollwentz (Burgenland), Kracher (Burgenland), Wenzel (Burgenland)
Australia: d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale), De Bortoli (Riverina), South Africa, Kanu (Stellenbosch), Paul Cluver (Elgin)
New Zealand: Seifried (Nelson)
Canada: Henry of Pelham (Niagara Peninsula), Inniskillin (Niagara Peninsula), Jackson-Triggs (Okanagan Valley, Niagara Peninsula), Konzelmann (Niagara Peninsula), Austria Weinrieder (Niederösterreich)
Germany: Dönnhoff (Nahe), S.A. Prüm (Mosel), Von Schubert (Ruwer)
Greece: Sigalas/Vinsanto ( Santorini)
Italy: Avignonesi (Vin Santo), Donnafugata (Pantelleria), Fontodi (Vin Santo), Lis Neris (Friuli), Livio Felluga (Friuli), Principe Corsini-Fattoria Le Corti (Vin Santo)
Spain: Jorge Ordoñez & Co. (Málaga)