Sweet wine tasting team
Santiago sweet wine tasting panel hard at work

In the last post we looked at late harvest wines, where the grapes are left longer on the vine so they become very sweet. Today, in the third in our series on sweet wines, we are going to look at two other ways of producing extra-sweet grapes in order to make sweet wine: drying the grapes to make a syrupy style of wine or freezing them to make Icewine.

Sun- or air-dried grapes

In some parts of the world the harvested grapes are hung or laid out on mats either outdoors in the sun or in a well-ventilated winery loft and allowed to partially dry or “raisinise”. During this process, the grapes will start to shrivel, literally like raisins or sultanas, losing water. With less water content, the sugars, flavours and acidity in each grape will become more concentrated. The grapes will become darker in colour and the flavours will change. When the half-dried grapes are pressed to make the wine, there will, of course, be much less juice than if the grapes had not been dried and this juice will be thicker and sticky and more difficult to ferment.

Pedro Ximénez wineExamples include Vin Santo and Recioto from Italy and Pedro Ximénez and Moscato wines from southern Spain.

Tasting note: Harveys 30-year-old VORS Pedro Xíménez, Jerez, Spain. 16% ABV.

Dark brown in colour, this is a dense, mouth-filling, lusciously sweet fortified wine with aromas and flavours like molasses, figs, liquorice and vanilla.

When to drink it: This wine will hold its own alongside any pudding, however sticky and sweet it is; think sticky toffee pudding.

Icewine or Eiswein

Icewine from Canada and the United States or Eiswein from Germany and Austria is another very special type of wine. The grapes are left until they freeze on the vine and then are picked and pressed quickly, while still frozen, so the water crystals remain in the press and only a very concentrated must passes through to be fermented. Icewine (or Eiswein) usually has pure fruit flavours and aromas and high acidity. Canada also produces sparkling and red icewines.

IcewineTasting note: Heinz Eifel 2014 Eiswein, Rheinhessen, Germany. 9% ABV

Blend of Silvaner and Riesling grapes, hand-picked and pressed while frozen.

This wine was a pale gold colour and showed a touch of petillance (light bubbles). Pronounced aromas of stewed pears and some spicy notes like cinnamon. This wine had purer flavours of pear drops, stewed pears and apples and quince jam with just a hint of minerality. The sweetness and acidity were nicely balanced and the body was much lighter than the other wines in the tasting. This was also the lowest in alcohol.

When to drink it: This wine would pair nicely with a pork-based pâté or an apple-based dessert.

For more information about sweet wines:

Sweet wines – sophisticated and versatile

Sweet wines 2 – Late Harvest Wines

Sweet wines 4 – Wines with botrytis or noble rot

Sweet wines 5 – chilled or fortified wines

Sweet wines including late harvestIn the last post we looked at how sophisticated and versatile sweet wines can be, combining with different types of food and making for a delicious aperitif or after-dinner drink. Many sweet wines are made with grapes that are much sweeter than normal. In fact, they are so sweet that the fermentation stops naturally before the yeasts have converted all the sugars.  There are four main ways of getting such high levels of sugar and today we’re going to look at the one used for late harvest wine. 

To make this kind of wine, you leave the grapes hanging on the vine for longer than usual, well past normal ripeness. As time goes by, the grapes start to shrivel or raisinise, losing water, and the juice becomes concentrated, with very high level of sugars and more fructose than regular, normally ripe grapes.

The yeasts that convert the sugar in grape juice or must into alcohol prefer glucose to fructose, so they convert the fructose last. If there is a lot of fructose in the juice, they may not manage to ferment it completely. Also, as there is a high sugar level, some wines can reach an alcohol level (around 14%-15% ABV) where the yeast action stops, even if there is still some sugar left.  Whatever the alcohol level, the end result is a wine that is sweet because it still retains some of the grape’s sugar.

A producer needs to have confidence that the weather will stay dry to leave the grapes on the vine once they are ripe, as damp conditions will probably cause the grapes to rot. Late harvest wines are therefore more often made in places with reliably dry autumn weather, including Alsace in France, where they are known as Vendange Tardive, and Chile.

The sugar that remains in the wine is called residual sugar and is measured in grams per litre. For instance, the Chilean Late Harvest wines detailed below have 100 grams per litre of sugar, while Royal Tokaji Eszencia is almost five times as sweet with 468 grams per litre. Looking at the level of residual sugar tells you how sweet the wine will be, although how you perceive the sweetness will also depend on the acidity level.

lujuriaChilean Late Harvest wines worth trying.

Casa Silva Late Harvest 2014, Colchagua Valley, 12.5% ABV. (Half bottle retails at CLP$8,000 – $10,500 in Chile, £8.50 at UK stockists, such as Whitmore and White)

This wine is a blend of late-harvested grapes: 56% Sémillon and 44% Gewürztraminer. It has 100 grams of residual sugar per litre.

This is a lovely aromatic wine with notes of honey, white blossom, lychee and passionfruit, candied orange peel, spicy notes of ginger and a touch of caramel. It is full-bodied, fruity and quite lusciously sweet but the high acidity helps balance this. Long finish.

Casas Patronales Lujuria Late Harvest 2013, Maule Valley, 12.5% ABV. (500ml bottle retails at CLP$7,000 – 9,000 in Chile)

75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Riesling. 100 grams of residual sugar per litre.

This is a pale golden colour and the aromas are pure and fruity, featuring notes of stone fruit, like peaches and apricots, citrus fruit, such as pineapple, as well as ripe pears and quince jam. Sweet, with high acidity and lovely concentrated fruit flavours. This wine feels lighter and more refreshing than the Casa Silva wine, though it has the same sugar level, so here the acidity is making it feel different.

When to drink late harvest wine: These wines will pair well with a range of cheeses or sweet pastries.

More about sweet wines:

Sweet wines – sophisticated and versatile.

Sweet wines 3 – Sun-dried or Icewine

Sweet wines 4 – Wines with botrytis or noble rot

Sweet wines 5 – chilled or fortified wines

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.

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