Perceived to be either too expensive, or often associated with old-fashioned festive traditions where they are served alongside dessert, sweet wines have had quite a misunderstood rep in recent decades. The circulation of poor-quality sweet wines during the 70s and 80s led people to turn their backs on the ‘sweet wine’ category altogether.
With the trends that ensued, the enjoyment of modern cuisines and an increasingly gastronomically aware community meant that simply serving a sweet wine with a sugary dessert, leaving the palette with overwhelming sweetness, has become a no-no. As such, bone-dry alternatives have been served as a healthier option instead.
This is about to change: The winemaker community has started to take a more artisanal approach to sweet wines, seeking to provide complex flavour profiles with fantastic thirst-quenching acidity. Sparking new interest and perspective, they open up in a new segment of qualitative yet affordable sweet wines to discover.
The category of ‘sweet wine’ encompasses such a mix of styles and methods of productions. We might picture a viscous, honey-coloured liquid made from white grapes. Actually, sweet wines can also be pink (AKA rosé), red, sparkling or even in the form of fortified spirits such as ports and sherries.
A ‘sweet wine’ technically refers to any wine with residual sugar on average between 45 grams/litre to 150grams/litre and sometimes even higher! One starts to pick up sweet flavours even at the 10grams/litre sugar level.
There are many ways to produce sweet wine. The chosen method, dependent on the region and climatic conditions, gives its distinct wine style. During fermentation, the yeast eats the natural sugars in the grape juice, producing alcohol. The key to great sweet wine is creating an excess of natural sugar, too much for the yeast to fully convert.
Ready to hit the sweet spot? Here are five types of unique sweet wines you can taste test to learn more.
1. Late Harvest
It isn’t easy to find a sweet spot when making sweet wine. Finding the right balance between ripened sugars and refreshing acidity is really tricky. With the “late harvest” technique, winemakers push their grapes to luscious ripeness. Every day, the level of sugar rises while the level of acidity decreases. In regions such as Alsace, winemakers make use of altitude to moderate the ripening of the wines. During vinification, the natural sugars are too abundant for the yeast, and varying amounts of residual sugar remains in the wine.
Wine to try: Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive Cuvée Anna by organic-certified producer Domaine Durrmann in Alsace, France.
2. Straw Method
The straw method has been used for generations, most predominantly across Greece and the French region of the Jura. Although techniques vary, traditionally ripe grapes are harvested, then laid on straw mats in the sun and left to dry for about a week. In cooler regions such as the Jura, they are dried inside. Through the process, the water molecules evaporate, leaving the sugars to concentrate. After pressing, the high quantity of residual sugar is left in the fermented wine.
Wine to try: Vin de Paille (‘Straw Wine’ in French) by Domaine André et Mireille Tissot in Arbois, Jura.
3. Ice Wine
Ice wine is famous in cooler regions such as Germany, Austria, and Canada, where temperatures fall below freezing while the grapes still hang on the vine. It is always a race as frozen grapes are harvested and immediately pressed. At these temperatures, only the water molecules freeze, leaving the sugary juices as a liquid. The rapid pressing after harvest allows the winemaker to isolate the sweet grape juice, undiluted by any water.
Wines to try: Inniskillin Riesling ice wine is a must-try all-time classic. If you want to up the aromatic experience, explore Cabernet Franc, a red ice wine made in Canada.
4. Botrytis cinerea or ‘Noble Rot’
Most of the time, if you hear the words ‘Botrytis cinerea’ mentioned anywhere near a vineyard, it is not a good sign. Also known as Grey Rot, this parasitic fungus can infect and destroy entire plots. Winemakers have to monitor their vines hourly in the run-up to harvest, especially in areas where moisture can build up. However, this ominous beast has a dazzling alter ego. In specific precise and perfected climates, botrytis can evolve into the idolised ‘Noble Rot.’ It is most famous in the region of Sauternes, Bordeaux and Tokaj, Hungary. Damp morning mists encourage the botrytis to perforate the grape skin. Then a refreshing afternoon breeze aerates and dries the vines, allowing the water to evaporate and the sugar to concentrate. The golden fungus also increases intense flavours, such as honey-glazed apricots, candied lemon zest, and beeswax into the wine, while simultaneously maintaining an invigorating acidity.
As a result of this magical and rare occurrence, yields can be low, leaving prices extremely high. The good news: There is an emergence of new generation sweet wines in France that embrace their terroir and climate to produce similar wines that are perfectly balanced in sweetness and acidity, open to so many pairing possibilities.
Wine to try: The Sur Saluces family, the original owner of famed Chateau d’Yquem, creates sweet wine under the mantle of Chateau de Fargues in Bordeaux with amazing complexity and freshness.
5. Loire Valley Spotlight
As a region in general, the Loire Valley offers some exciting opportunities in gastronomic wine culture. Winemakers are developing individual signatures and harnessing the cool climate to maintain acidity, flavour and intrigue in their wines. AOP Vouvray is located in the subregion of the Touraine in the Loire Valley, dedicated mostly to Chenin blanc, a varietal full of bright acidity and the perfect partner to a little sweetness. The winemakers of Vouvray are producing late harvest and even noble rot sweet wines with the ability to age, at some of the best price-to-quality ratios ever available.
Vouvray wines range in sweetness with a very specific definition: ‘Sec’ refers to dry and zippy cuvées that have less than 9g/l residual sugar; ‘Demi-Sec’ offers an aromatic sweetness of between 9-15g/l; ‘Moelleux’ means succulent and balanced, they have anything between 15-45g/l of residual sugar; and ‘Doux’ wines are potent and velvety, they include 45g/l and over.
Vouvray is always a pleasant surprise: The region is famed for its sought-after sweet still wines, but it also produces impeccably voluptuous sparkling wines as both brut and demi-sec. These are a fantastic alternative to Champagne during the holiday season. While they are set at an approachable price point, they can also be equally as qualitative and full of elegant aromas of mandarin zest and quince jam.
Wines to try: One of the oldest estates in Loire Valley, Chateau Moncontour celebrates the authenticity of Chenin blanc and the sweet wine traditions through an array of sweetness — Brut, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux — in both sparkling and still styles.
Pairing sweet wines with food
There are different explanations for why sweet wines fell out of fashion. However, one reason that stands out is ‘disappointing food pairings.’ The tradition of pairing sweet wines with sweet foods doesn’t really work. A few time-honoured pairings are admittedly delicious, such as a peachy Sauternes with salty roquefort cheese. Still, there are so many new ways to use the complexity of sweet wines with gourmet pairings.
The Acacia blossom, honeycomb and zesty ginger of a Moelleux Vouvray are sublime with Southeast Asian and Indian cuisine, for instance. The honeyed fruit of the wine soothes the heat of the spices while also amplifying its flavour. Intense aromas in the cuisine, such as lemongrass and coriander, playfully interact with notes of beeswax and rose petal in the wine.
Our gastronomic minds are being expanded once more to the complexity of this ambrosial category of wine, and it’s about time we turn to more sweet wines in our regular repertoire to sip and discover more.