Sweet Wines: More Sophisticated Than You Think

Wine trends come and go. Currently, sweet wines are the underdogs of the wine world. Why is this the case?

First of all, myths abound in the United States about sweet wines. The prevailing myths are that sweet wines are for “beginners,” or they’re “unsophisticated,” or they’re cheap and low quality.  The reality is much different; some of the most desired and collectable wines are sweet wines.

The snobbery that leads people to regard sweet wines as inferior may be the result of the stocking of your local wine aisle. There’s little doubt that a fair amount of the cheap and artificial-tasting wines in grocery and big box retail stores in the United States are sweet wines.  

Another reason sweet wines get a bad rap may have to do with larger trends of health consciousness in our culture, and how that consciousness shapes our perceptions of the word “sweet.” The digital world’s health gurus may push many of us toward orthorexia – the obsession with extreme healthy eating and little pleasure. However, those of us who enjoy some of the greatest sweet wines of the world in moderation will collect and consume those wines without the side of guilt the digital health gurus would serve us.  

What is a sweet wine?

Like many fruits, wine grapes are a source of natural sugar. This natural sugar accumulates in the fruits during the growing season. Yeast (Saccharomyces) consumes these sugars during fermentation. Dry wines result from the yeast consuming all of the sugars. In sweet wines, some amount of unfermented sugar, known as Residual Sugar, is left after fermentation.

Residual sugar finds its way into wine in different ways. Below are several ways sugars are concentrated or introduced into sweet wines. In addition, a few common examples of sweet wines are detailed and different pairings explored. At the bottom, you will find exciting videos about how sweet wines are made!

What is the history of sweet wine?

Fructose plus ethanol. Need we say more? In addition to satisfying our primal human desires for sweets and a buzz, residual sugar can help preserve wine. Sugar has been used for centuries as a natural food preservative (think sugar-cured ham and fruit preserves) to inhibit or prevent the growth of food-borne pathogens like Clostridium botulinum or Salmonella.

This kind of preservation was important in the time before corks, bottles, or refrigeration. In that time, wines were kept from spoiling by two main methods. The first was to add brandy or neutral flavored alcohol to wine to raise the alcohol percentage. The second way was to leave some residual sugar in the wine.  

In ancient and, even more recently, colonial times, these sweet wines were not always 100% stable – the presence of sugar and “sleeping” yeast could be a proverbial ticking bomb. Yeast, waking up from its slumber inside a container in warm conditions surrounded by all that yummy fructose, would consume the sugar and generate carbon dioxide bubbles. Winemakers discovered that adding sulfur dioxide suppressed the yeasts, preventing it from unintentionally waking up while in the bottle.

This sulfur dioxide innovation boosted an already expanding market for sweet wines, which were hugely popular in northern Europe and Russia from the 1500s through the 1800s. That love for the sweet stuff spread across the Atlantic and found raving fans in colonial America, some of whom included the founding fathers of the US.  

Sweet Wine Is for Beginners (and Other Myths)

A prevailing myth is that people start with sweet wine and “graduate” to dry and “more sophisticated” wines. Some wine consumers may indeed find that they take this path in their wine journey. More early sweet wine consumers switch from wine to cocktails, beer, or commercial concoctions (remember Zima!) because they are teased for liking sweet wines or for not being “real wine drinkers.”

One need only look over the fence at the beer world and its hyperfocus on IPAs to see that this phenomenon of the perception that there’s a “correct” beverage is not unique to wine. However we don’t see too many stout and sour beer lovers saying “I’m not really a beer drinker” because they steer clear of hoppy IPAs.  

As more research is done, we are learning that there are genetic and environmental factors that affect our preferences for sweetness, acidity, and tannins in wine. The wine industry is finally starting to incorporate these recent findings in some wine education curricula. Like any type of change, though, this incorporation of new ways to understand wine preference is happening slowly.  

If you are a beginner, start by drinking wine that you like. As you begin to understand what you like, start to test different food and wine combinations to see what appeals and what doesn’t. If you take notes on memorable pairings and stand-out wines, you’ll soon see that your taste in wine is not “simple” and that there is much to explore.

What is a good sweet wine?

Because sweet wines drinkers have been marginalized in the wine community, we are the first to doubt our taste in wines and seek out confirmation that the sweet wine we are drinking is good. Sweet wine lovers can rest assured that by stepping back and taking in the whole world of wine, one will see that sweet wines have been made for centuries in renowned wine regions for a variety of purposes.

Many of these sweet wines are highly sought after by wine collectors and sommeliers.  

Sweet wines like Sauternes and Auslese Riesling, and fortified wines like Vintage Port, are adored by collectors because their flavors and aromas evolve so much during their lifetimes, which can exceed 50 years.    

Big retailers are also interested in wines with residual sugar and have innovated with sweet wines to appeal to a mass market. Because the wine industry knows many of us have a sweet tooth, many red wine blends we find in grocery stores and big box retailers contain residual sugar. These wines fill a niche for consumers seeking sweet and fruit-forward wines ready to drink now.

What are some types of sweet wine?

Sweet wines made from frozen grapes harvested from the vine

In cold climates, grapes destined for sweet wine production are allowed to remain on the vine until the temperatures drop below freezing. These mature, frozen grapes are then picked by hand from the vine and pressed. These late harvested grapes are very mature and high in sugar.  When the frozen grapes are pressed, water is left behind with the skins, so what remains is a grape full of sugar and flavor. Yeast has a difficult time surviving high sugar conditions, so fermentation stops at lower alcohol levels.

A lower cost way of making sweet wines using freezing is to pick very mature clusters or berries and freeze them at the winery. These wine are labeled as “iced wine,” or in some cases, simply “dessert wine.”

Eiswein/Icewine are from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, France (Savoie), China, and Japan.

These wines are typically still (not sparkling), however some sparkling Icewine is made in Canada.  

The wine varieties used in the production of eiswein/icewine vary by country and region.  The more common varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.  

These wines can be enjoyed upon release or following decades of aging.  Collectors and sommeliers love it due to the rarity and the pure varietal expression of the grape used.  This wine can be enjoyed by itself or with soft and blue cheeses.

Don’t worry about finishing that expensive bottle in one sitting!  These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two due to their high level of acidity and sugar.  

Video of Eiswine harvest and winemaking:

Sweet wines made by harvesting grapes late in the season

Drying (Passerillage) on the vine. Mature grapes stay on the vine and the natural forces of wind and heat dehydrate the grapes.  

Late harvest wines that wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter here in the US come from France (Alsace), Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and the United States.  

Other names for late harvest wines that you might see on wine labels:

France (Alsace):  Vendange Tardive

France (Jurançon): Vendange Tardive

Germany: Spätlese

Austria:  Same as Germany, plus Ausbruch

These wines are typically still (not sparkling), however there are some sparkling late harvest wines.

The wine varieties used in the production of late harvest wine vary by country and region.  The more common varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng.  

These wines can be enjoyed upon release and some benefit from aging.  Collectors and sommeliers enjoy these wines because they pair well with sweet desserts and cheeses.

Don’t worry about finishing that expensive bottle in one sitting!  These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days.

Yes, there are a lot of names of late harvest wines.  And vignerons who make late harvest wines may make several types of late harvest wines.  This video shows how this is done in Germany.

Sweet wines made from naturally dried grapes

Drying (in a bin or in the hayloft!). Grapes are dried in trays or on straw in attics.  Yes, making raisins and then making “raisin wine”.  This is called the passito method.

Sweet wine made from partially desiccated grapes that wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter here in the US come from France (Jura and Loire regions), Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Dominican Republic, United States, Denmark, New Zealand

Here are some examples of terminology you might see indicating sweet wines originate from naturally dried grapes:

Italy:  Recioto della Valpolicella

Austria and Germany:  Strohwein or Schilfwein

Croatia:  Prošek

France:  Vin Paillé or Vin de Paille

The varieties used to make these wines are typically indigenous to the area, however international varieties are used as well.

These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days.

This is not an easy way to make wine.  The grapes are harvested late and then laid out to dry before being pressed.  This video shows how this is done in New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc.

Sweet wines made by Noble Rot (Botrytis)

Botrytis is a naturally occurring fungus that punctures the ripe grape. When this occurs, liquids ooze from the grapes, leaving behind a slightly desiccated pulp.

Sweet wine made from grapes with a desirable infection of botrytis come from France, Hungary, Germany and the United States.

France

  • Bonnezeux, Vouvray, Quarts de Chaume made from the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc variety)

  • Sauternes, Barsac, Cérons, Bordeaux-Haut-Benauge, Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Saint-Foy-Bordeaux, Graves de Vayres, Premières Cȏtes de Bordeaux, Cȏtes de Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Francs-Cȏtes de Bordeaux, as well as Bordeaux Supérieur (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle varieties)

  • Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) (Riesling, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris varieties)

Hungary

  • Tokaji Szamorodni, Tokaji Aszú,  Aszúeszencia, Tokaji Eszencia (Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály)

Germany

  • Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese

These wines can be enjoyed upon release, but some benefit from aging. Collectors and sommeliers enjoy these wines because they pair well with sweet desserts and cheeses. Once open, these wines can be stored in the refrigerator for up to seven days.

Sweet wines made by stopping fermentation by adding grape spirits

Yeast is not only sensitive to high sugar levels, but is also sensitive to high alcohol conditions.   Hundreds of years ago, winemakers in various regions of the world discovered that fermentation can be stopped by adding neutral grape spirit (mostly flavorless alcohol from grapes), dropping the temperature, or adding sulfur dioxide to the fermentation vessel.  

The following are favorite sweet wines made by stopping fermentation with still grape spirit:

France

  • Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise of the Rhône Valley (variety)

  • Vin Doux Naturels of Roussillon (Grenache)

Australia:

  • Rutherglen Liqueur Muscats and Liqueur Topaques aka “Australian Stickies”

Spain

  • Sherry, Andalucia/Jerez, Palomino and Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso Sherry, Pedro Ximenez (PX)

Portugal

  • Madeira - Malmsey (aka Malvasia)

  • Port (Late-Bottled Vintage, Ruby, Tawny, Vintage).  Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão and Touriga Franca.  

Late bottled vintage and ruby port can keep for a few weeks after opening in fridge.

Tawny port can keep in the refrigerator for a few months. Vintage port does not keep well after opening – we recommend sharing with friends in one setting.

Sweet wines made by stopping fermentation by chilling then using filtration to remove the yeast

Sweet wine can be made by fermenting in a neutral vessel like stainless steel and stopping the fermentation before the yeast have converted all the sugars to alcohol. A common way of stopping fermentation is to bring the temperature of the must close to freezing then filtering it to kill the yeast.  

In the United States, we are most likely to see two kinds of wines made this way. These are Moscato and Brachetto d’Acqui from the Piedmont region of Italy. What makes these two wines popular is their low alcohol, subtle effervescence, light body, and fresh fruity flavors.  

There are many different styles of Asti including Moscato d’Asti. The grape that these sparkling white wines are made from is called Moscato Bianco or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. These sparkling white wines can range from semi-sweet to sweet.  

If you like Moscato d’Asti and want to explore a bit, try demi-sec Champagne. If you find Moscato d’Asti not sweet enough, try Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti).  

Here’s a video outlining how Moscato and Brachetto d’Acqui are made:

How to serve sweet wines

Sweet wines are typically served in 2 to 3 oz pours in an 8 to 10 oz glass.

When serving sweet wines, white wines should be served between 40 and 48F, Tawny Port and sweet Sherry 54 to 61F, Vintage Port 64 to 68F and sparkling sweet wines at 40 to 50F.

There’s no need to purchase a dessert wine glass. I love universal glassware, like this glassware I’ve had for two years. It is a tulip-shaped crystal glass, amazingly clear, featherlight, and a pleasure to swirl. Also, the lip is super-thin.

In addition to pairing well with creamy and/or blue cheeses, sweet wines also pair well with fruit or nut desserts, with rich meats like foie gras and pate, and with ice cream.

A key to serving sweet wines with sweet foods is to make sure that the wine is sweeter than the food. If the food is sweeter than the wine, the wine may taste too acidic or tart for most drinkers.

Summary

As you can see, there are many types of sweet wines, and the work of making them is generally more intensive than the work of making dry, still wines. Many of these sweet wines are sought out by collectors and sommeliers.  

These artisan wines are often undervalued. The price difference between a “cheap” commercial sweet wine and a premium product is often less than a Frappuccino.  

The industry misses a lot of potential customers due to myths and stereotypes of sweet wine drinkers.