Here’s the thing – a lot of people, even those who do not traditionally enjoy wine, do like a sweeter tasting wine. However, many of those who have tasted a flabby, sickly sweet Moscato, or an overly sugared Riesling, have sworn off sweet wines for good.
I hate to hear this, so I’m asking you to give ‘sweet wines’ a second chance. Yes, there are some badly made sweet wines out there, but a good wine retailer will have quality sweet wine options for you to choose from. After reading this post, I hope you will call into us and discover our comprehensive selection of sweet wines.
I suppose the best place to start talking about sweet wines is to define what a ‘sweet wine’ is (as opposed to an oaky or fruity wine). I have mentioned sweet wines before in various posts such as this one How to Become a Pro in the Wonderful World of Wine Tasting, so in this post I intend to elaborate further.
Sweetness as a Defining Characteristic
What determines a wine’s sweetness? Wines can be dry, medium dry, medium, or sweet. Residual sugar determines this classification.
- During the fermentation process, yeast consumes sugar and converts it to alcohol.
- After fermentation is complete, the remaining sugar determines the wine’s sweetness.
- Wines with high levels of residual sugar tend to be lower in alcohol unless they are fortified.
- Winemakers measure residual sugar as grams/liter (g/L).
- Very sweet wines weigh in at 45 g/L and above while dry wines have around 2.5 g/L or less.
- Other wine components such as acidity, temperature, tannins, and alcohol can all affect sweetness. For instance, acidity tempers sweetness, while alcohol increases it.
Types of Sweet Wines
Sweet wines have an ability to match the flavours in food that can’t always be achieved with dry wines. Sugar, fat, and salt, consumed in concert, can produce the most heavenly gastronomic harmonies.
Fine wine producers make sweet wines in one of two ways: They either dehydrate the grapes to reduce their water content and concentrate the sugars or boost the alcohol to intensify sweetness, halt sugar production, and produce fortified wines such as Port and Sherry.
Sweet wines result as a combination of these methods and other factors.
- Botrytis: Also known as noble rot, botrytis is a spore-like fungus that attack healthy grape clusters in the late autumn. The end result yields wonderfully complex and flavourful sweet wines that can be found in Sauternes from Bordeaux, such as Chateau d’Yquem, Hungarian Tokaji, and Auslese or Beerenauslese from Germany’s Rheingau region.
- Eiswein: German for ice wine, these wines are made from grapes that naturally freeze on the vine.
- Late Harvests: Here, winemakers leave grapes on the vines in the late autumn. This allows the grapes to develop more sugars as they fully ripen. They are full of sticky honey, deep fruit flavours, and floral bouquets.
- Fortified Wines: Winemakers add neutral grape spirits, such as brandy, to the wines during fermentation.
Tasting a Sweet Wine
If we’re going to peg the kind of sweet wine that you might enjoy drinking, we’re going to have to get a bit more specific about how a sweet wine tastes.
The tip and top of your tongue are the areas that detect sweetness. One key aspect in the taste of any wine is the degree of sweetness or dryness. Simply put, a dry wine is a wine that is not sweet.
The perception of sweetness in wine, however, can be deceptive as there are other components that can increase your impression of sweetness but are unrelated to residual sugar.
Also, intense fruit flavours can be confused with sweet flavours, but a wine can be fruity without being sweet. Other components in wine such as tannin and acidity counterbalance the perception of sweetness.
For instance, many fine German Rieslings have such high acidity that they taste crisp and dry, even though they might contain higher levels of residual sugar than the average table wine. Lower levels of tannin and acidity can create, by their absence, a stronger impression of sweetness.
good contrast of sweet versus dry may be found in sparkling wines. A Brut Champagne will exhibit no sweetness at all, while a lush Asti Spumante will demonstrate ample sugar on the palate.
Why Sweeter Wines for Beginners?
One of the most common questions we get here in Green Acres is what are some good sweet wines for beginners?
I believe that the reason why most people ask for a sweet wine is because sweet is often associated with something that is pleasant to drink. However, when it comes to wine, sweeter doesn’t always mean it’s going to be more pleasant to drink.
That’s because, as we keep reminding readers of this blog, wine is an acquired taste; each person will have their personal preferences. Just because someone else likes it doesn’t mean you will like it as well.
It is worth saying though, that some wines with varying degrees of sweetness are very beginner friendly.
The main reason is because people are often used to sweet drinks. Even their diet is full of sugar. Our body and our taste buds are used to sugar and so, we love sugar (not necessarily a good thing, of course).
Drink something that our taste buds are a little more familiar with and it’ll taste good. On the other hand, if a beginner starts off with a completely dry wine, it’s going to be very different. It’s a taste they don’t really recognize, so they’re less likely to enjoy it.
Great Sweet Wines of the World
The best sweet wines are born in the vineyard, where a number of different factors can provide a much higher concentration of sugar than found in grapes used for still wines. Though sugar content defines the category, piercing acidity is a fundamental part of the world’s best sweet wines, providing much-needed balance.
Here are the world’s most important (unfortified) sweet wines, their grape variety and some tasting notes.
Described by Louis XIV as “the wine of kings, the king of wines,” the Aszú wines of Tokaj, Hungary, are among the most celebrated in the world. Fragrant and honeyed, the golden nectar typically includes notes of apricots, ginger, white flowers, marmalade, and sweet baking spices.
Grape varieties: Furmint, Hárslevel?
Arguably the rarest and most luxurious of all sweet wines, Tokaji Eszencia is made from the free-run juice of aszú berries. This wine is so rich that it is typically served on ornate crystal spoons.
Grape varieties: Furmint, Hárslevel?
A region in the Graves district of Bordeaux, Sauternes produces one of the world’s great botrytised wines. Intensely aromatic, Sauternes wines contain notes of honeyed apricots, caramel, coconut, mango, ginger, and citrus fruits.
Grape varieties: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle
BA AND TBA RIESLING
The Austrian and German contributions to the botrytised wine category include Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), which are usually produced with Riesling.
Riesling’s electric acidity not only balances out these extremely sweet wines’ high residual sugar, it also lays the foundations for decades and, in some instances, centuries of aging potential.
Grape varieties: Riesling, Scheurebe, Ortega, Welschriesling, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer
More Examples of Sweet Wines
In some countries, growers can leave grapes on vines long into winter, without the worry of rot setting in. Once frozen, they pick and press the grapes, with only the sugary must emerging. The viscous liquid is then fermented into deliciously sweet ice wine.
Grape varieties: Riesling, Vidal, Grüner Veltliner
Gently fizzy Moscato d’Asti is the emblematic dessert wine of Italy’s Piemonte region. Produced using Moscato Bianco, the highly aromatic frizzante wine exudes aromas of peaches, grapes, orange blossom, and lemons.
Grape varieties: Moscato Bianco
RECIOTO DELLA VALPOLICELLA
Located in the Veneto region of northwest Italy, Recioto della Valpolicella, shines as a complex digestif, with aromas of dried fruit, cocoa, vanilla, and tobacco, and notes of black cherries and plums on the palate. Grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella
Give Sweet Wines a Chance
I firmly believe that if you ‘give sweet wines a chance’ they just might draw you away from sweet cocktails and build on your knowledge of white wines.
First dips into dessert wines tend towards white wines that lie on the sweeter side of the spectrum. However, it is up to you to consider which is the best match for your taste buds. Chenin Blanc, Moscato, Sauterne, Torrontés, Riesling, and Tokaji are all great options for a sweet toothed, sweet wine beginner.
When someone asks for a “sweet wine” they are really communicating that they prefer wines that are not dry. In the world of wine, sweet is the opposite of dry.
Lastly if you are the sole dessert wine drinker in your house, don’t worry. Once opened, a bottle or half-bottle will keep for a week or more in the fridge so you can enjoy a small glass night after night.
One last thing – did you know that we launched the Green Acres mobile app recently? Now you can bring us home in your pocket. Book tables, browse wines, learn of special offers, check events, connect with us, earn loyalty rewards and much more. We would really appreciate if you would click on either of the tabs below to download for free.
Talk to you soon, Donal.