Why Sweet Wines Deserve Your Attention

In most contexts, the words “sweet” and “dessert” are joyful ones—but not always so when it comes to wine. Although sweet wine styles are amongst the oldest in winemaking culture’s millennia-long history, these days they’re often overlooked. But this is a mistake.

At its best, wine is a harmonizing act. On one side, there’s acidity (that juicy, literally mouthwatering quality) and tannins (a slight bitterness, like stems or pips, but one that props up a wine’s other flavors like scaffolding). On the other, there’s alcohol (a warmness, its ideal intensity no more than a soft and pleasant glow) and fruitiness (the flavors of the grapes themselves). To this dance, it's possible to add another flourish: sweetness, which has the power to make a wine more complex and whole.

Grapes infected with botrytis, a desirable fungus. (Photo credit: Flickr/adulau)

Sweet wines are made with a variety of techniques, but as with all wine, the process begins by exposing crushed grapes (or “must”) to yeast, which feeds on the fruit’s sugars, creating alcohol in the process. Impede the yeast along the way, and some of the grapes’ sugars will remain in-wine—to be known as residual sugar, which is, of course, what gives sweet wines their sweetness.

But things get complicated from there. One the most revered sweet wines is made from white-wine grapes stricken with botrytis. If conditions are right, this desireable fungus, fittingly called “noble rot,” takes hold in vineyards at the tail end of harvest time. This saps grapes of half their water content, shrives skins and pulp, and concentrates sugars. Certain weather conditions—humid in the morning, warm and sunny in the afternoon—act as a rot-control system, creating an environment in which yeasts can only survive so long and residual sugar builds up. Botrytised wines are made most famously in places like Hungary’s Tokaj area—where the technique was pioneered in the 17th century—and France’s Sauternes, in the Bordeaux region. These wines offer a pleasantly musky earthiness that lends a particularly savory flavor.

In Sauternes and Barsac along the Garonne river, a tributary to the Gironde Estuary that opens southwestern France up to the Atlantic Ocean, noble rot finds sanctuary amongst vineyards of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, two of Bordeaux’s classic white-wine grapes. Here, too, is the fabled Chateau d’Yquem, its sweet botrytized wines capable of aging for decades. But even when young, Chateau d’Yquem vintages are the epitome of what river-borne morning mists can do to grapes. The wines taste of apricot, peach, and mushroom, with a mouth-filling suppleness scored by a tingling acidity. One classic pairing is foie gras, but pâté and any bacon dish will do. For the less meat-inclined, mushroom dishes and blue cheeses are excellent pairings.

A glass of Château d’Yquem from the Sauternes region of France. (Photo credit: Flickr/megs_pics)

Also not to be overlooked: botrytized wines of increasing levels of residual-sugar, from demi-sec to the rarer bottle-aged moelleux, all made of Chenin Blanc grapes from Vouvray in the Loire River valley in northwest France. Vouvray wines are known for their bracingly-high levels of acidity—a powerful counterbalance to sweetness. They also boast honey-like and lemony aromas that are most accurately described as funky. From cream sauces to sausages to artichokes, there are few foods that don’t pair well with Vouvray wines.

In areas where nature doesn’t do the trick, human intervention can help ramp up sugar concentration. Harvested grapes placed in the sun or special drying rooms will partially raisin before being crushed, as is the case with northeast Italy’s recioto wines. This category includes Recioto di Valpolicella—a meaty, sweet red made from native grapes like Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella that’s perfect complement to roast pork and gamy boar ragu—and Recioto di Soave, which is made with that region’s Garganega grapes. 

There’s yet another way to stop yeast from gobbling up sugar: During fermentation, add a little spirit—a liquid that’s upwards of 16 percent alcohol—and all sugar-alcohol conversion will come to a screeching halt. In France, these wines are somewhat misleading known as vin doux naturels, natural sweet wines, or VDN, and can be found throughout the nation. Rasteau, in the southern portion of France’s Rhone River valley region and a sister wine zone to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, offers a full range of VDNs comparable to its greatest dry reds: Rasteau VDN is made of varying blends of the region’s Grenache varieties and other locals like Carignan or Marsanne. Pair these with crunchy, melty, caramelized mac ‘n’ cheese and barbecue-style pulled pork.

Here are five sweet wines to try. Be sure to chill them to a temperature of around 54 degrees Fahrenheit to heighten acidity and flavors and give tautness to the sugar.

Gini Recioto di Soave

Robert Parker Wine Advocate score:
Read the full review here.

Huey Vouvray Demi Sec

Robert Parker Wine Advocate score: 94+
Read the full review here.

2014 Domaine du Trapadis Rasteau VDN Grenat

Robert Parker Wine Advocate score: 89
Read the full review here

Santa Sofia Recioto della Valpolicella Classico

Robert Parker Wine Advocate score: 89
Read the full review here

Chateau Caillou Barsac

Robert Parker Wine Advocate score: 88 - 90
Read the full review here

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