There is a scene in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in which the videogame-obsessed Mike rants about candy being pointless while flying inside of the Great Glass Elevator. To this, Charlie kindly replies “candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”
There will always be those who snub sweetness, but in times when everything is so functional and purposeful, the simple act of making something which sole raison d’etre is to be enjoyed feels a little rebellious.
Whether a sweet wine is sipped alongside a dessert or instead of it, they certainly elevate an occasion. But while wine lovers often praise the wonders of wines like Madeira, Tokaji or Vin Santo, their names are most often in our lips than the wines themselves.
Yes, they’re not the type of bottle most of us would open to enjoy while binge watching Stranger Things, but dessert wines add a touch of wow when you’re entertaining and they give an air of indulgence to a table for two.
There are many paths to sweetness
The world of dessert wines is incredibly diverse and there are many degrees of sweetness as well as alcohol levels. You’ll find wines ranging from as little as 5% ABV (just like a beer) to a solid 20% ABV (more than Baileys).
This is due to the several different winemaking techniques that can produce wines with varying sweetness. In a nutshell, the main division is whether a wine is fortified or not.
As the name suggests, fortified wines have been strengthened with the addition of grape spirit during fermentation. Let’s remember that yeast eats sugar and turns it into alcohol, and when the alcohol levels are high enough in the wine, the yeast dies. If enough spirit is added to raise the liquid’s alcohol levels before the yeast is done eating the existing sugar, it will be killed, leaving a wine with over 15% ABV and residual sugar.
Among the most famous examples of sweet fortified wines you’ll find Port, Madeira and Marsala.
Other types of sweet wine rely on different strategies.
Stopping fermentation: Alcohol is not the only way to stop fermentation. A very fine filter can be used to remove the yeast while the wine is still sweet. This technique is used for many off-dry styles of wine.
Increasing the concentration of sugars in the grapes: Many of the best sweet wines are made from grapes with a naturally increased sweetness. There are several ways to get this effect.
One way is to harvest later in the season. As grapes ramain in the vine for longer, they ripen more and develop more sugars. In certain wine regions, this extra time sometimes comes in hand with the arrival of the famous “noble rot” (Botrytis cinerea), which is a beneficial type of fungus that helps dry the fruit on the plant, leaving them looking awful, but lusciously sweet. Wines like the icnoic Sauterns and Tokaji benefit from this.
Another technique is the drying of the grapes, sometimes to the point where they become raisins and then vinifying. Many Italian sweet wines such as Recioto della Valpolicella or Vin Santo come from dried grapes.
Speaking of Italy, another Italian specialty, Asti Spumante is a type of sweet sparkling wine with very low alcohol (around 5%) made from Muscat grapes. It is tank fermented as Prosecco, but only goes though one fermentation, which is stopped by chilling the wine and then filtering the yeasts out and bottling under pressure.
How to serve dessert wines
Because they tend to be intensely flavoured, sweet wines are generally served in smaller quantities than dry wines. Three ounce (75 ml) servings work in most cases and depending on the type of wine, temperatures might vary.
It is generally advised to serve Port very slightly chilled, somewhere between 13°C-16°C. Same goes for Madeira and other fortified wines. The older and more complex, the warmer they can be served (a Vintage Port will be better at 16°C while a Ruby can be a bit colder).
Rich and intense sweet wines from dried grapes or raisins (like Recioto or Vin Santo) shine around 12°C to 14°C, while more delicate late harvest wines, Botritis influenced wines and Ice Wines (such as Tokaji or Sauternes) do well around 10°C, increasing up to 14°C for older vintages.
For Ice Wine, you can go even a bit lower, serving at 8°C to 10°C, and for Asti Spumante, as cold as 6°C.
Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos
Tokaji wines come from the Tokaj region in Hungary and have earned the nickname “king of wines.” This one is on the sweeter side of the scale (“Puttonyos” is a unit that refers to the level of sugar, and five meaning it requires a minimum of 120 grams of sugar per litre).
It is balanced and tense, with a high acidity carrying elegantly all the sweetness. On the nose, you’ll find a delightful, golden parade of ripe fruits and honey notes. Think peaches, orange and passionfruit.
Killahora Orchards Rare Apple Ice Wine
Only the best apples from Killahora Orchard in Co. Cork, are selected for this beautiful artisan apple ice wine. The pressed juice is slowly frozen and thawed, then partially fermented to keep some of the apple’s natural sugars.
Aromas of toffee, apple tart and candied lemon harmoniously blend in a medium bodied wine with a sweet entrance and the acidity to balance it up. With very soft tannins, it feels quite smooth on the palate. It goes really well with goat cheese or simply at the end of a meal.
Bodegas Toro Albalá Don PX Vintage 1990
€29.95 (37.5 cl bottle) – Available at O’Briens Wine
This luscious, mature and dark dessert wine comes from a Spanish region called Montilla-Moriles and it’s made entirely from Pedro Ximénez grapes (if the name rings a bell it’s because it’s often associated with some types of Sherry wines).
Very intense, with complex notes combining dried figs, dates and apricots, along with a roasted nuttiness and molasses flavours.
Trerose Vin Santo
€28.95 – Available at Little Italy
Vin Santo is an Italian specialty coming from different parts of Tuscany. It is made with grapes that have been allowed to dry, concentrating the sugars.
This Vin Santo di Montepulciano is left to ferment in 100-litre casks that are tehn sealed with was, allowing the wine to mature for seven years. Dark golden with a copper hue, this wine has notes of roasted hazelnuts, praline and marmalade. Complex and with a long finish,try it the traditional way, along with cantuccini.
Seifried Nelson Sweet Agnes Riesling
This delicate multi award-winning dessert wine from New Zealand feels fresh and zesty despity its sweet nature.
Full bodied and with plenty of aromas of honey, limoncello, honeysuckle and pineapple.
It is made from 100% Riesling grapes selected at the peak of ripeness, with plenty of the fruit raisined in the vine. Serve it chilled along with fruit-based desserts or in lieu of it.