There is a seemingly endless choice of dessert wines available to us. They are made as Sweet, Fortified, and Oxidized wines and each has its own specific characteristics and unique style. Though specific methods are used to make each type, there is often an overlap in the methods of production that are used. In this article, we outline the similarities and differences of each major category of dessert wine.
What is a Sweet Wine?
Sweet wines are made using the natural sugars in the grapes and no additional alcohol is added to the fermenting grape juice. Winemakers use overripe grapes (late-harvest) naturally elevated sugar levels have developed because over-matured grapes stay on the vine late into the autumn and often have developed noble rot (botrytis cinerea)which is when the grape shrivels and mold grows on the grapes creating dried fruit and honey flavors. Winemakers use special techniques to stop the fermentation process such as rapid chilling while maintaining the yeasts in the wine. It is important for a sweet wine to have balanced sugar and acidity. Additional sugar may be added as needed to achieve the desired level of sweetness through a process called Chaptalization. Sweet wines have a minimum of 35g of residual sugar per liter but can have up to 220g.
Famous Sweet Wines
Sweet wines are made in many countries around the world, below are some of the most famous ones.
What is an Oxidized Wine?
Oxidation is commonly identified as being a fault that causes red and white wines to lose their vibrant color and flavor. If a wine is exposed to oxygen for too long then white wines turn brownish and red wines often change to a russet or orange color. Extended exposure to oxygen can cause the wine to convert into vinegar as the acetaldehyde turns into acetic acid. Usually, a wine that is oxidized is considered as having gone off and is therefore no longer fit for consumption. If you are lucky it might still be suitable for a delicious wine-based sauce.
Oxidation can also have a positive effect on certain wine styles and there is a growing number of winemakers that have learned how to harness the effects of oxidation and are creating some very interesting dry still wines that are often orange in color. Oxidation is a common method that is used during the production process of fortified wines.
Though oxidized wines can be made anywhere in the world, a famous one made in the Jura region in France from the local Sauvignon grape is called “Vin Jaune” (Yellow Wine). Vin Jaune received its AOC status in 1936 and is made without fortification, (the addition of an alcohol such as Brandy). The desired level of oxidation is reached by aging the wines in old barrels that are partially empty so that there is space for the wine to interact with the air that is trapped inside. The mix of air and wine forms a blanket of yeast over the top of the wine. Occasional checks are carried out by the winemaker to monitor the alcohol levels, otherwise, the wine is undisturbed and left to age for two or three years at which time the yeast film will have developed completely. A dry white wine of about 15% ABV is produced. It is then further aged for a total of six years and three months before being bottled and released on the market.
What is a Fortified Wine?
Winemakers have been making fortified wines for centuries. Fortified wines have varying levels of sweetness. An important difference between fortified and traditional sweet wine production is that a distilled spirit such as Brandy is added during the fermentation process and oxidation techniques are often used to create the final wine. Regional appellation laws determine what types of spirit can be added during the fortification process. The additional spirit that is added to the wine will affect its final aroma and taste. When the alcohol is added to the wine during the fermentation process, it kills the yeasts once the must (fermenting juice) reaches 16-18% alcohol, when this level of alcohol has been achieved, the alcohol becomes toxic to the yeasts, killing them. The lack of yeasts halts the fermentation process and leaves behind residual sugars which create a stronger and sweeter wine with around 20% ABV when the process is complete. The high levels of sugar alongside the high levels of alcohol in Late Harvest or Botrytised wines naturally kill the yeasts, causing fermentation to stop before the wine can become dry.
What are the Most Common Fortified Wines?
In conclusion, dessert wines are made almost everywhere in the world and come in many different sweetnesses and styles and are created for any palate. As with any wine, dessert wines are made for enjoyment and often can be enjoyed on their own or paired with food. Enjoy exploring the different types of dessert wines that are out there and discover your favorite(s).