Dry January is finally over and I hope we are all ready for Sweet February. As we all know there is always a wine for every occasion. However, sweet wines are often overlooked even though they are great for many occasions. I am afraid that the most of us almost forget sweet wines exist when we think about wine or when we do think about them we have some reason or another not to drink them like diet watchers and non-sweet tooth people (who apparently exist!).
The trick is producing a wine which, while sweet, is not overly sweet. That is the real art. The sensation of cloying sweetness is a telltale sign of poorly made sweet wine. The delicate practice of finding a balance between sweetness and acidity is like tuning a musical instrument. If your piano is out of tune even a perfectly played song won’t sound right, or might even sound downright terrible.
Sweet wines contain high levels of unfermented (residual) sugar. That’s why sweet wines need to counterbalance this sweetness with acidity and trick your brain into perceiving a balanced sweetness. This is the fine-tuning of which I spoke above, the ability to strike a perfect note of sweet wine which doesn’t scream of sweetness. If you are one of those that tend to avoid sweet wines because of their sugar content, it should be pointed out that you might end up having more sugar in a gin & tonic (especially if you drink more than one) than your sweet wine.
What exactly is a sweet wine? Is it the same as a dessert wine, liqueur wine or fortified wine? Let’s gets the definitions out of the way. First things first, sweet wines must contain a minimum 45 g/l residual (unfermented) sugar and minimum 4.5% ABV. Dessert wine and liqueur wine, which are two terms used interchangeably for the same type of wine, can include sweet wines but not all of dessert and liqueur wines are sweet wines. The only requirement for these wines is that they contain at least 14-15% ABV and have a maximum of 24% ABV. Again, not all of them are sweet, some of them are sweet and some of them are dry.
As we all know grapes contain sugar and fermentation then converts sugar into alcohol with the help of yeast. Sweetness in wine comes from sugars which remain once the fermentation process is finished. The question here is how come some sugars are left over in the wine instead of being used up during fermentation? How can we make sure this happens? For this we have two options; having a lot higher amount of sugar in grape must (unfermented juice) that the yeast is not able to ferment or stopping fermentation at some point with the addition of spirits (fortification).
Fortified wines, however, are not always sweet. Sherry, Port, Madeira are all fortified wines, but they are not always sweet. Vins Doux Naturels and Rutherglen, on the other hand, are fortified wines which are always sweet. The level of sweetness on fortified wines can vary by the style of wine. For example, Fino, Manzzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso are different types of Sherry wines and they all contain less than 5 g/l of residual sugar which would put them on the dry side. On the other side Pedro Ximenez (PX) and Moscatel, also Sherries, have at least 180 g/l of residual sugar which puts them firmly in the sweet wine category.
High sugar and high alcohol content will prevent yeast development during fermentation. At some point the yeast will not be able to ferment the remaining sugar into alcohol. This leads us another way we have can produce sweet wines. Examples of wines which fall under this category are late harvest, noble rot (aka Botrytis cinerea), ice wine, straw wine (aka vin de paille, passito, raisin wine).
Late harvest wines are made from grapes picked at a later than usual harvest time. This causes a higher level of sugar in grapes and more concentrated flavour. Some of the typical grape varieties used for late harvest wines around the world are Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Furmint, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier.
Some of the best late harvest sweet wines come from grapes that have been “afflicted” by noble rot. I can imagine that hearing the word rot is not really appetising and usually rot is not welcomed in a vineyard but noble rot is different. Specific climatic conditions are required to be able to have noble rot affected (botrytised) grapes that are suitable for winemaking. Otherwise, it will just destroy the grapes. In the right conditions, it leaves grapes shrivelled and concentrates the sugar and flavour. Sauternes, Barsac (France); Beerenauslese (BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) (Germany); Tokaji Azsú (Hungary) are some of the most delicious sweet wines that are affected by noble rot.
Ice wine is a type of late harvest wine that requires a cold climate in which grapes are harvested while frozen on the vine. Ice wine is a relative rarity as it can only be produced in certain regions, under specific weather conditions. The tradition of making ice wine is well established in Germany and Austria. More recently however Canada has a developed a growing reputation for ice wine-making.
Straw wine (aka vin de paille, passito, raisin wine) requires warm climates that dry grapes and concentrates their juice. As the grapes shrivel and lose water they become full of concentrated sugars and flavours. Sweet Vin Santo, Recioto di Soave, Recioto della Valpolicella (Italy), Vin de Paille of Jura (France) are great examples of straw wine.
As you can see there is a whole world of sweet wines out there for you to enjoy. Sweet February is the perfect time to try them; it is the month of love, the days are getting longer and spring is getting closer and closer. Now go and try some sweet wines you have not tried before or even try sweet wine for the first time. It is the perfect gift on Valentine’s Day for the ones you love. Remember to keep them sweet!
Domaine Lafage Grain de Vigne 2016
Available at – Mackenway Wines, The Wine House Trim, The Vintry Rathgar, Baggot Street Wines, Lilac Wines, Philipsburgh Avenue, Sweeneys Glasnevin, The Drinkstore Stoneybatter, World Wide Wines Waterford, Cashel Wine Cellar, Cashe, Coppinger Row, Pichet, Fade Street Social, Shelbourne Social, Crow Street, Ox Belfast.
This vin doux naturel from Rivesaltes in France has intense fresh aromas of pear, apricot and lychee framed by fineness in this well-balanced wine.
Stefano Accordini Recioto della Valpolicella Classico ‘Acinatico’ 2015
Available at – Wines Direct
This sweet red wine from Valpolicella in Italy is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. The palate of this intense red ruby colour wine offers flavours of cherry and dried fruits.
Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú
Available at – O’Briens Wine
From Hungary`s Tokaj region, this gold coloured delicacy delivers intense flavours of honey, apricot and orange peel and has a harmonious balance of sweetness and acidity.
Sevgi’s passion for wine begun while she was studying food engineering in one of the wine-producing regions of her native Turkey. Following her graduation, she chased her dreams and started to work as a winemaker in her home country.
She obtained her MSc in Oenology & Viticulture from the Montpellier SupAgro and Hochschule Geisenheim University. Mosel in Germany, one of the most respected wine regions, is where she experienced the practice of growing grapes in the extreme steep-slope vineyards. Later, she conducted research for her postgraduate study about the wine market in Ireland.
Currently, she provides wine education and consultancy through her company A WINE IDEA based in Galway.