I just started teaching a WSET Level 2 Award in Wine & Spirits class the other night. I love the first day of a new class. It’s exciting not only for the students but for me as well. On the first night we taste a variety of wines to get the students used to using the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. We taste 6 wines each with a different attribute to calibrate the students’ palates. The last wine tasted is always a sweet wine and I always choose a good Sauternes.
Believe or not, even in a WSET Level 2 course, there are many people who have never tasted a sweet wine. Yes, they’ve tried a white zinfandel or a moscato but not a truly sweet wine. When they do, it’s a revelation for them. Almost every single person is absolutely blown away by how good they are. A well-made sweet wine is ethereal and can be a life-changing experience. So, why don’t we drink more of these?
Before we start discussing the various types of sweets lets look at the wine making process and what part sugar plays.
In order to make wine there needs to be two things present. These are sugar in the grape juice and yeasts that can occur naturally or be added to the juice. The yeasts eat the sugar and produce alcohol along with some other byproducts we won’t concern ourselves with now. After fermentation is complete there is, usually, very little sugar left in the wine. This is what we would call a dry or off-dry wine. The perception of sweetness is non-existent or barely perceptible. Most wines we drink fall into this category. So how do we make the wine sweet?
Adding a sweet component to the finished wine.
This is the easiest, and least desirable, way to make a wine sweet. This process involves adding sugar or a sweet concentrate to the finished wine after fermentation is complete. In most regions this is considered cheating and is illegal. (With the exception of Champagne where it is considered part of the process). The wines usually taste very sweet like candy and are a bit cloying or thick on the palate. These are usually very cheap, mass-produced products.
Addition of Sulfur to kill the yeasts
This is not illegal but not the best method to use. There are some German Rieslings that are made this way. Sulfur is added to wine that is fermenting in order to kill off the yeasts when the desired sweetness level is reached. The wine is then filtered and bottled usually at a low alcohol level like 9%. The winemaker must be very careful to ensure all of the yeasts are filtered out or there is a risk of a refermentation in the bottle causing some bubbles in the wine. During the filtering process some desirable components may also be lost. Some of these wines from good producers can be quite good if handled with care.
Fortification is the process of adding a neutral grape spirit (brandy) to wine that has not finished fermentation. The spirit kills the yeasts leaving sugar in the wine. The wines are noticeably sweet and high in alcohol, usually 18% and up. Fortified wines are very popular in Spain, Portugal and Southern France. Some examples of fortified wines are Port, Madeira and Banyuls and Muscats from southern France.
Fortified wines can be very complex. In the case of Port the aging process will determine the style and whether or not the wine is suitable for aging. Vintage Ports can, and should, age for decades. Madeira can age indefinitely. The flavors of fortifieds range from fruity and fresh to oxidised, nutty and chocolate.
One note. Not all fortified wines are sweet. Sherry is a fortified wine that is dry. The brandy is added after the fermentation is complete giving us a dry, fortified wine. In order to make a sweet Sherry, a sweet wine is added to the dry Sherry at the time of bottling. This is called a Cream Sherry.
Concentrating the sugars in the grapes.
This is the best but most difficult way to make a sweet wine. There are several different methods one can use to get extremely sweet grapes. You first must start with healthy, very ripe grapes. All of the methods concentrate the sugars in the grapes giving very sweet juice. There is so much sugar in the juice that the yeasts die before they have the chance to convert them all into alcohol. We are left with a very sweet, complex wine at about 15% alcohol.
Noble Rot or Botrytis Cinerea
Botrytis is a fungus that attacks healthy, ripe grapes. This results in two types of infections. In damp, humid conditions the fungus turns to grey rot and the bunches will have to be discarded. But under the right conditions magic happens. In some places such as Sauternes, Tokaij and parts of Germany and Austria, the conditions are just right for the formation of Noble Rot. Cool, humid mornings are followed by sunny, dry afternoons. The mold dessicates the grapes drawing out moisture causing them to shrivel. This leaves a very thick, sweet juice. The mold also adds complexity through the interaction with the grape.
The individual grapes are harvested by hand during multiple passes through the vineyard. They are then pressed and made into wine. Eventually all of the lots or vats of wine will be blended to make the final product. This is a very labor intensive process which adds to the final price of the wine.
These are special wines that are very complex. They have flavors of honey, dried apricot, orange marmalade, caraway seed, orange zest, quince, mango, pineapple, almonds and hazlenut. They are also very long-lived due to the high acidity of the grapes used. This high acid also keeps the wines fresh and vibrant and not sticky and syrupy on the palate. Look for Sauternes, Tokaji, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese on labels.
A second method of concentrating the sugars is to dry the grapes after they have been harvested. This is how many of the famous sweet wines of Italy are made. The process is called passito.
Healthy, ripe grapes are harvested by hand and then laid out in a single layer on mats to dry. They are left either in the sun or under cover. The conditions must be dry so as the grapes do not rot. In some cases where there is humidity Noble Rot may form adding complexity to the finished wine.
These wines are similar to those produced with Noble Rot. The are very concentrated in flavors and are long-lived. Some names to look for are Recioto della Valpolicella, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, Sciachetrà from the Cinque Terre east of Genoa and Erbaluce di Caluso Passito.
Ice wine is made from frozen grapes. The grapes must be healthy and ripe and then must freeze on the vine. Only the water in the juice freezes leaving the sugar and other solids. This allows a more concentrated, sweet must to be pulled from the pressed grapes. The resulting wine is very sweet. These wines are not as complex as the wines above. What Ice Wine gives us is the pure expression of the grape in very concentrated form. Look for Ice Wines from Canada, Vermont, Germany, Austria.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on sweet wines and that it inspires you to go out and grab a bottle to try. Remember that when pairing sweet wines you should eat something sweet, most of the time. There are savory pairings as well. A classic pairing is Sauternes with Foie Gras. Enjoy!