Sweet wines provide delicious and enjoyable drinking experiences and pair well with various types of food and dessert.
Nevertheless, sweet wine remains one of the least recognized wine styles available in the market.
Did you ever wonder why there could be such a wide range of prices for a bottle of dessert wine? Would you be concerned if there is extra sugar added to the wine to make it sweet?
As a beginner knocks on the door of the unknown world of wine, many people may start drinking sweet wines as an introduction.
Some may need more time to get used to the astringency of tannin in red wines, while some may not be that comfortable with a bone-dry white wine with high acidity, but almost everyone can find a favorite type of sweet wine to enjoy – it is just much easier to get chilled with something sweet!
Photo credit: Virgin Wine Online Ltd.
Knowing how different types of sweet wines are made may help you get the perfect bottle next time.
There are 3 major approaches to sweet winemaking:
1. Stop the fermentation
2. Add a sweetening component
3. Concentrate sugars in the grapes
Stop the Fermentation
Most wines are fermented to dryness – as we all may already know, the yeast consumes the sugars in the grape juice, that’s fermentation.
Sweet wines contain unfermented sugar and can be made by stopping the fermentation before the yeast consumes all the sugars.
Adding grape spirits (usually from 77% abv. to 96% abv., depending on the regulations) is a traditional way to stop alcohol fermentation, since the yeast cannot survive in such an environment with high alcohol content.
However, fortification will change the structure and the balance of the wine with higher alcohol content. The representative category as a traditional sweet, fortified wine is Port from Portugal.
Chill the Wine
Fermentation can be stopped when the temperature is too low as the yeast would be inactive in such a low temperature.
Chill the fermenting wine and then get the wine filtered to remove the remaining yeast, which usually results in sweet wines with lower alcohol.
This is usual in Germany when making Kabinett wines, and Asti sparkling wines in Italy. In the US, the medium-sweet White Zinfandel is made by chilling the fermenting wine to achieve its fruity sweet style as well.
Add a Sweetening Component
It is allowed in some countries to add unfermented grape juice or rectified concentrated grape must (RCGM) to achieve the desired level of sweetness for the wines.
Although adding a sweetening component is often used for making high volume entry-level wines to increase the sweetness, there is an important type of sweet wine we cannot overlook – Champagne doux, a.k.a. the sweet type champagne.
A “dosage” is added to the champagne before it is sealed with a cork. The amount of sugar in the dosage will determine its final level of sweetness, ending up with a variety of champagne defined by different terms, demonstrating a scale of its residual sugar.
Photo credit: Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB)
Noble Rot / Botrytis cinerea
Botrytis cinerea, also known as the “Noble Rot”, is a kind of benevolent fungus that takes hold under a specific set of conditions – the fungus of noble rot punctures the grapes’ skins in the misty humid mornings, which will then cause the water to evaporate from the grapes in the warm and dry afternoons.
The evaporation not only concentrates the sugar and acid levels, but also increases the complexity of the aromas and flavors. The fungus also contributes some very distinctive characteristics to the wine, such as honey and dried fruits.
The noble rot might be the most precious fungus across the world, which is used in the production of some of the most premium sweet wines, such as Tokaji and Sauternes.
Grapes start to dehydrate and turn to raisins after reaching their full ripeness, which causes the sugar and flavor concentration in the juice.
“Late Harvest” wine usually means the wine made in this way, leaving the wines with a noticeable sweetness. In French, “Passerillage” is a process that grape growers cut bunches of grapes at harvest, and let the grapes air-dried and shriveled in order to increase the concentration of sugar prior to winemaking.
There is another method of drying grapes after picking, which allows the harvested grapes to dehydrate and concentrate the sugars. For example, Italian “Passito” wines are made with this dehydration processing technique.
Ice wine, Icewine in Canada, or Eiswein in German is a unique type of sweet wine made from grapes that are left hanging on the vine to freeze in the winter months.
The water in the grape pulp turns into ice when the freezing temperature arrives. Then the frozen grapes are harvested and pressed while still frozen, squeezing out the juice and letting the ice remains in the press.
This process significantly increases the sugar content and the flavor concentration in the resulting juice.
Let’s Learn More about Sweet Wines
Is there always added sugar in the sweet wine?
No, after reading this introduction to sweet winemaking, I believe there is a better idea than just added sugar. The residual sugar is usually the natural sugars from the grapes that are not fermented out when the fermentation stops.
Can sweet wine only pair well with dessert?
No, no, no. Sweet wine can only pair with dessert is one of the biggest misconceptions. Sweet wine can be served as an aperitif, make itself a dessert, match with a variety of cheese, and even pair perfectly with Asian cuisine with spicy notes.
Photo credit: Wines of British Columbia
Are all Rieslings sweet?
No, this is another common misconception that all the Riesling wines are on the sweeter end. In the past, the residual sugar in the Riesling wines (or other white wines from the cooler regions) was to balance its high acidity, especially in some difficult vintages when the grapes struggled to fully ripen. There is a great deal of dry Riesling which can be found on the market.
Are Noble Rot and Penicillium associated?
The “Noble Rot” a.k.a. Botrytis cinerea is a type of Ascomycota, which is the most diverse phylum in the fungi kingdom. The types of the Ascomycota fungi that are beneficial to humans include the Caterpillar fungus (mostly used as a tonic for boosting the immune system in traditional oriental medicine), blue cheese, antibiotic penicillin, and one of the valuable ingredients, morel mushrooms.
What is the most expensive sweet wine in the world?
In 2011, a 200-year-old bottle of Château d’Yquem 1811, has been sold for £75,000 ($117,000). This incredibly old vintage from one of the most prestigious wineries in the world broke the previous world white wine record.
Photo credit: Agence France-Presse (AFP), photographer: Ben Stansall
There is a wide range of sweet wines waiting for both wine naive and wine connoisseurs to discover – some are fabulous go-to options and can be enjoyed anytime, and some are super-premium bottles that may be reserved for a special moment in life.
The most important is – to find the one in the style and sweetness level you like. Cheers!