What are Sweet Wines?
When grapes are grown, fermented and stored in certain ways to enhance the sugar levels, the result is a much sweeter tasting wine, which is a different experience to other varieties and is enjoyed in a unique way. Many of the grapes used are those that make popular white wines, such as Riesling, Muscat, and Chenin Blanc, however, they are grown and treated in a very different manner.
Generally, wines with around 30 grams per liter are considered sweet, wines with 10-30 are deemed medium-dry, and wines with under 10 grams of sugar are considered dry. Some of the finest sweet wines are aged for years in barrels, allowing the water vapor to evaporate and leaving a sweet syrup that is so thick it can be enjoyed from a teaspoon. We will focus, however, on the more common varieties.
There are a number of ways to create sweet wines, one of the most common is to change the fermentation process. Fortified sweet wines such as port are created by adding a distilled liquor, most often brandy, at some stage during fermentation. When this liquor is added, the alcohol instantly kills off the yeast, stopping it from consuming sugar to turn into alcohol. In this way, fortified sweet wines have both high sugar and alcohol content.
Many high-quality sweet wine grapes are also grown in certain conditions to attract noble rot. Although this may sound off-putting, noble rot reduces water levels and shrivels the grapes, leaving only the sweet sugary substance behind. Growing grapes in these conditions is a highly-skilled art, as the wrong environment could cause damaging rot to take hold and destroy the yield. For this reason, noble rot sweet wines are often more expensive.
Another unique strand of sweet wines is Icewine. Far from being grown under the summer sun, these grapes are grown in freezing conditions and harvested while still frozen solid. When pressed, the water is too hard to be extracted, whereas the sugary contents of the grape can slowly ooze out, leaving only the sweetest liquid possible.
When Should You Drink Sweet Wine?
Sweet wines can be enjoyed on their own after dinner or accompanying a dessert course. They are best paired with savory dessert courses or treats less sugary than the drink so that it is not overpowered. Cheese boards, biscuits, and soft fruits are perfect to nibble on while you enjoy a fine sweet wine. The strongest sweet wines are typically enjoyed in small quantities and sipped slowly.
What are the Best Sweet Wines?
Taste: Nectarine, honeycomb, pear, jasmine
Style: Fruity and aromatic sweet wine
Description: To create these excellent sweet wines, Riesling winemakers hand pick bunches of grapes affected with noble rot or create icewine to enhance the sweetness. Sweet Rieslings generally have lower alcohol content and higher acidity levels.
Food pairing: Crème brulée, fruit-based desserts, soft cheese, salty cheese such as halloumi
Grüner Veltliner: From neighboring Austria, Grüner Veltliner sweet wines are also made using the same icewine technique. Giving Riesling sweet wines a run for their money, Grüner Veltliner is becoming increasingly popular around the world, including the US.
Best glasses for Riesling are the leadless white wine glasses, preferably with a good stem length. You can find these glasses here.
Taste: mandarin, pear, honeysuckle, elderflower, vanilla
Style: Fragrant sweet wine
Description: Derived from the Muscat grape, Moscato sweet wine is a great wine to try if you are new to sweet wines, due to its easy-on-the-tongue sweetness and versatile food pairings. Best served chilled, Moscato can be enjoyed alongside a dessert course or on its own during warmer months.
Food pairing: Nuts, meringues, summer berries, creamy cheese, foie gras
Riesling: Slightly lower in alcohol content than many sweet wines, sweet Riesling is a good alternative to Moscato and pairs well with similar foods.
As there are multiple varieties of Moscato wine, it is hard to say which glass would be the perfect one for your specific taste. What you can always do is to get a good tumbler glass, like the one shown here, and to have some fun with it while doing it.
Taste: Fig, honey, quince, almond, honeysuckle
Style: Medium-bodied sweet wine
Description: Made from Chenin Blanc grapes, Vouvray can come in a Demi-Sec sweet variety which is an enjoyable sweet wine, or in the Moelleux form which is particularly sweet and the richest form of the grape.
Food pairing: Creamy cheese, pastries, cake, foie gras
Sauternes: If you enjoy Vouvray and are looking for an even richer glass of sweet wine then Sauternes is a great alternative and can be paired with many similar foods.
Taste: Butterscotch, caramel, ginger, marmalade, honeysuckle
Style: Full-bodied, rich sweet-wine
Description: Coming from Bordeaux and produced from only grapes affected by noble rot, a bottle of Sauternes has maximum sweetness and maximum flavor. This highly regarded wine can have high sugar levels than soda and will come with a higher price tag than many other varieties.
Food pairing: Foie gras, rich blue cheese, chocolate, cake
Tokaji: If you’re looking for another high-quality grape that has enjoyed noble rot to produce a fine sweet wine, then Tokaji will not disappoint. This Hungarian alternative has flavor notes including ginger, beeswax, and saffron.
Taste: Honey, caramel, ginger, saffron, and beeswax
Style: Full-bodied, sweet wine
Description: Originating only from Hungary and Slovakia, the Tokaji wine is grown under very specific circumstances and in the perfect climate. Using only grapes affected by noble rot, they are also grown during a long summer and harsh winter to provide extra sweet, ripe grapes. The fermentation process of Tokaji wine takes several years.
Sauternes: When it comes to depth of flavor, sweetness, and richness, Sauternes sweet wines are the best alternative to rival Tokaji.
Taste: Raspberry, caramel, cinnamon, chocolate
Style: Rich, fortified sweet wine
Description: Port is unique in many ways, but one of them is that it can be created from a blend of up to 100 grape varieties. Port is often fortified by brandy for an extra kick, and the richest variants are enjoyed in small quantities at a time.
Sherry: Made from white grapes, sherry provides a drier texture to Port, as it is fortified after the fermentation process, as opposed to halfway through. Like Port, it is best enjoyed chilled and in small quantities.