The complete guide to fine dessert wines
The vast world of wine is not always easy to navigate if you have a sweet tooth. After all, familiar and ‘serious’ wines are often dry, and tend to get a lot more buzz than dessert wines which are sometimes looked down upon as a novice wine drinker’s tipple of choice.
But this is a pretty flawed opinion. Historically, sweet wine was once the most popular and coveted style of wine in the world, and the very first demarcated wine region – recognised in 1737 – was east Hungary’s Tokaji, which specialises in sweet whites.
Nowadays, sweet wines make up a significant share of the collectibles market, with the likes of vintage ports, Sauternes and the afore-mentioned Tokaji – among others – ranking highly in terms of market share, aging potential and value. Here’s everything you need to know.
What makes a wine sweet?
Sweet wines often fall under the catch-all of ‘dessert wine’, and while there is no standard guidance for what constitutes a dessert wine, it generally comes down to sugar. Dry wines have no perceptible residual sugar, sweets wines do.
Grapes contain natural sugars known as fructose and glucose. When the grapes are turned into wine, yeast ‘eats’ the sugar and produces alcohol. If the yeast is allowed to eat all the sugar, you’ll end up with a dry wine. The less sugar consumed by the yeast, the sweeter the wine – and, generally speaking, the higher the alcohol content.
Sweet wines are best made from grapes with a high acid content, as acid gives structure to what can otherwise be a very bland sweetness.
How is sweetness in wine measured?
Dry wines are typically fermented at up to three grams of sugar per litre, while a sweet wine can contain up to seven grams per 100ml. Very sweet wines might have up to 13 grams of sugar per 100ml. A can of Coca-Cola contains 10.8g per 100ml, so you can see why dessert wines have earned their name.
On the wine dryness (or sweetness) chart, level 1 represents a dry wine, level 2 is off-dry, level 3 is semi-sweet, 4 is sweet, and 5+ is very sweet.
What are the different types of sweet wine?
There are dozens of different types of dessert wine on the worldwide market, but the most popular include:
A sweet, slightly effervescent wine, most Moscato wine refers to a type of sparkling wine known as Moscato d’Asti, a grape variety from the Piedmont region of Italy. That said, it’s grown and produced in a myriad of countries, including Spain, France, Portugal and Greece. It’s light and fresh, filled with a blend of fruit flavours like pineapple, lime, pear and orange, although in some cases will taste similar to apple or grape juice.
Generally accepted as the King of Dessert Wine, this sweet Bordeaux is made using botrytised and raisined Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Semillon grapes. By relying on friendly fungus known as noble rot, the wine features a slight nuttiness, combined with honey, peaches and apricots. With an aging potential of more than 100 years, this is one of the most collectible investment wines on the market.
A white wine grown in the Rhine region of Germany, Riesling is packed with a number of aromas ranging from perfumed florals to apples, pears and peaches, and a touch of something mineral. Because of its light, clear flavour profile, Riesling is heavily influenced by the soil in which it grows, far more so than other types of wine. Like most dessert wines, the Riesling grape is harvested late in the season, after the grape has had time to ensure maximum sweetness.
As mentioned above, Tokaji is one of the oldest and most revered forms of dessert wine. Produced by select appellations in Hungary and Slovakia, strict regulations permit only a handful of varietals in the creation of this wine, which is super saccharine and teeming with notes of caramel and honey. Like Sauternes, Tokaji is prized for its rarity, cellar worthiness and expense.
Icewine / Eiswein
The name of this wine is derived from the harvesting process, where the grapes are picked at night, in the dead of winter, and only after they freeze on the vine – but before the freeze damages the grapes. It’s a highly specialised, complicated wine to produce that exhibits highly concentrated, lush fruit flavours counterbalanced by a crisp elegance and a stony minerality. The best hail from Canada, although you can find superb offerings from Switzerland, Oregon and Germany, too.
What about sweet red wines?
Sweet wines are typically associated with white varietals, but there are ample red offerings, too. None are more famous than vintage port, of course. Produced primarily in Portugal’s Duoro Valley, the wine is made with a wide array of varietals for big bold fruit flavours and an aromatic sweetness that yields an ABV as high as 20%.
Other sweet reds include fizzy offerings such as Lambrusco, sparking Shiraz and Brachetto d’Aqui, as well as medium-bodied Schiava, Black Muscat and Dornfelder.
How long can sweet wines age?
Sweet wines are among the safest bet for long-term aging. Produced with an emphasis on acidity and added preservation power in the form of high sugar and sometimes alcohol, these wines are famous for their longevity.
Vintage Port is meant to be aged for at least 15 years, although multiple decades are preferred. Tokaj and Sauternes, meanwhile, are wines that can be aged for decades, which has led to record-breaking prices at auction for antique bottles.
As these bottles age, the sweetness does not disappear, but the wine picks up darker flavours. This strikes a better balance on what may have tasted like simple sugar when the wine was young.
What’s the best way to serve sweet wine?
Sweet wines – particularly very sweet varieties – will generally be sipped slowly, so the standard 175ml serving size is out. Many sweet wines even come in half-bottle formats that befit their concentrated flavour. But by all means serve in a regular wine glass, especially as doing so permits the swirling and smelling that forms a valued part of the appreciation of these wines.
They should be served lightly chilled, thus tempering the perception of sugar without obstructing the delicate flavours this style of wine is known for.