If you’re looking for a drink with a difference, look no further! Sweet wines may not be the first thing that springs to mind but trust me, some of these wines are the height of sophistication and a whole lot more versatile than you might imagine.  So varied is this category of wines, I have decided to dedicate a series of five posts to them.

sweet wines: niepoort-colheita PortSweet wines are untrendy right now and you may be wondering why they are worth a five-day feature. But just think – this is a category of wines that covers a huge range of styles, including some of the world’s most sophisticated, complex and expensive wines. Yes, some sickly sweet, almost undrinkable wines do exist, but there are also sublime wines that can make the perfect finishing touch to a special meal. For instance, check out a Riesling Late Harvest with chicken liver pâté, a rich Ruby Port with a selection of mature cheese or a Rutherglen Muscat with Christmas pudding.  And Oriental dishes or meals which combine meat or cheese with fruit (such as Roquefort with figs or roast duck with orange sauce) often work best with a medium-sweet or sweet wine, balanced by high acidity, especially those with botrytis, like Sauternes.

tasting-at-the-wset-school-in-london
Back to school: learning to taste fortified wines at the WSET School in London

Lately I’ve been trying all sorts of sweet wines and have been blown away by how amazingly diverse and super cool they can be. So, over the next few posts, I’m going to look at the main types of sweet wine and how to choose one that’s right for each occasion. The key to knowing what sweet wine will suit you and the food you are planning is knowing how each type is made, so let’s go right back to basics.

Wine is naturally dry

Grape juice contains sugars (glucose and fructose). When grape juice (known as must) is fermented, the yeasts in the fermentation vat convert these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Normally, the fermentation continues until virtually all the sugars have gone. When the yeasts have nothing left to feed on, they die off naturally and the end result is a dry wine. Most wine is made in this way.

Sweet wines - Eszencia from Tokaj
One of the world’s ultimate sweet wines: Eszencia from Tokaj in Hungary

So how come some wines are sweet?

There are several ways of making sweet wines and each results in a very different style of wine:

  1. You can sweeten dry wine
  2. You can use grapes that are extra sweet because they are harvested later than normal, sun- or air-dried after harvest, affected by botrytis (noble rot) or left on the vine to freeze
  3. You can stop the fermentation early, before all the sugars have been converted, by cooling the wine down or fortifying it.

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at each of these methods and the kind of wines that result, starting with the most simple option.

1 You can sweeten dry wine

You can add sugar into a dry wine in the form of unfermented grape juice – specifically rectified concentrated grape must (RCGM) or sweet grape juice (süssreserve). Wines with added grape juice are likely to have simple grape aromas which may complement or even overpower the aromas of the wine itself.

Wines sweetened in this way taste differently because of the type of sugar they have. When grape must is fermented, the yeasts convert the glucose first, so if there is sugar left when the fermentation stops, it will be mainly fructose, which tastes more fruity and refreshing than glucose. However, when unfermented grape juice is added to a dry wine, it will have equal amounts of glucose and fructose and so be less fruity and refreshing.

German wines made from Riesling are among those that can be sweetened in this way and the naturally high acidity of the wine will counterbalance the sweetness, making for a refreshing, steely wine, which can have apple, peach or citrus aromas, minerality and, with age, a faint kerosene tang.

When to drink these wines: Serve a chilled off-dry or semi-sweet Riesling as an aperitif, with salads or trout.

More information about sweet wines: 

Sweet wines 2 – Late Harvest wines

Sweet wines 3 – Sun-dried or Icewine

Sweet wines 4 – Wines with botrytis or noble rot

Sweet wines 5 – chilled or fortified wines

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