“Sweet wines are for amateurs.” This is obviously a misconception, but many people immediately shun sweet wines due to either unfamiliarity or, perhaps, an unfortunate White Zin experience. In truth, crafting serious sweet wines requires rigor, patience and care. It’s an artful interplay between achieving desired levels of sweetness (residual sugar) and alcohol, while also celebrating the full range of the grapes’ flavor and aromatic characteristics.
By way of comparison, dry wines are products of full fermentation, wherein yeast converts all sugar in the pressed grape juice until no residual sugar remains. Sweet wines, on the other hand, are produced to ensure a desired amount of residual sugar remains in the final product. This end result can be achieved through a few different variations in the wine-making process:
- Adding a sweet component, such as unfermented grape juice, to sweeten the wine (This is often considered a less sophisticated approach.)
- Interrupting the fermentation process by removing the yeasts with filter, or killing the yeasts using sulfur dioxide or by adding alcohol. Fortification (adding alcohol), where the grape juice is stopped short of full fermentation, is used to produce Port and Madeira.
- Concentrating the sugar level in the grapes, themselves, before they are crushed
Of the above three, concentration methods are often considered the most artful and are employed to make some of the world’s most exceptional dessert wines. They include the following intricate techniques:
1. Late harvest: Leaving the grapes on the vine longer than usual for harvesting at extreme ripeness boosts sugar level.
- Grapes destined for late harvest are not only sweet but are often naturally high in acidity, which keeps the wine from being cloying.
- The result could be a refreshing compliment to light desserts.
2. “Raisin” the grapes: Drying the grapes causes them to shrivel. This could occur on the vine in warm climates or by laying the grapes out in well-ventilated, dry conditions that encourage evaporation.
- This method adds a distinct oxidized character to the the final product.
- This process gives uniquely condensed flavors of cooked and candied fruits, honey and spices.
3. Ice the grapes: In cold climates, healthy grapes are sometimes left to freeze on the vine for winter harvesting. Crushing the grapes while still frozen allows the ice crystals to be removed, leaving an intensely concentrated grape syrup that is used to make sweet Eiswein or icewine.
- Because these are made with intensely concentrated juice from healthy grapes, the wines have very pure, pronounced, varietal flavors, high acidity, full body and syrupy sweetness.
4. Botrytis (aka Noble Rot): Botrytis is a “welcomed” fungus that sometimes develops on healthy, ripe grapes. It weakens the skin and speeds up the evaporation of water. This technique is vital to the production of certain highly prized dessert wines, such as Sauternes and Tokaji. These wines usually command a much higher price because:
- Nobility is not guaranteed. If the conditions are not right, the rot could turn into a normal grey rot, which is a guaranteed crop destroyer.
- Handpicking is essential as Botrytis rarely affects all the grapes evenly. Several passes may have to be made through the vineyard to pick all the grapes at the perfect stage of rottenness – a laborious selection process that makes production very expensive.
- They age well, and Botrytis adds its own unique flavors with expressions of honey, stone fruits lemon.
- The product is a lush, unctuous sweet wines, with complex flavors of honeysuckle, spice and exotic fruits.
Serving and tasting:
- Dessert wines are best served well chilled at 6-8oC or 43-45oF.
- Dessert wine glasses should be smaller with a bowl that’s curved to emphasize the fruit aroma and direct the wine to the back of the mouth so the sweetness doesn’t overwhelm.
- As the name implies, dessert wines can provide a perfect standalone conclusion to a meal
- For pairing with desserts, keep in mind that, in general, the wine should be at least as sweet or sweeter than the dessert.
TASTE n PAIR pocket guide:
I invite you to trust your instincts and enjoy a luscious journey of sweetness and sensations. Santé!