The sweet truth about sweet wines
by Thor Iverson
Grandma's sherry. Cold Duck. Communion wine.
For most people, their first taste of wine is one of these
sticky concoctions. So it's no surprise that
has a bad reputation -- because aside from
the occasional decent white zin, most of these wines really suck.
But historically, many of the world's most sought-after wines were sweet.
Tokaji, Sauternes, Port,
and Madeira were prized at the tables of the royal and
the rich. Some of today's greatest wines, such as Montrachet (the great white
Burgundy) and Savennières (chenin blanc from the Loire Valley), used to
be sweet. And sweet wines remain an essential part of winemaking and dining
traditions all over the world. Everywhere but America, that is. Too many
domestic wine lovers regard sugar as an aberration -- something only
grandmothers and the oenologically uneducated could like.
The American shunning of sugar is certainly due to the bad reputation of the
cheap plonk iterated above. It's also a result of the notion that there are
"right" and "wrong" wines to drink -- or, more accurately, right and wrong
wines to be seen drinking. Worse yet is the belief that only dry wine can go
with food. Though some progress has been made (the growing acceptance of
off-dry German whites with mildly spicy Asian cuisine), sweet wines are usually
forced to accompany the dessert course, a pairing that demeans both the food
and the wine. Sugar in food cancels out sugar in wine, and vice-versa -- which
sorta defeats the purpose of both dessert and dessert wine.
The plain truth is that many sweet wines go just wonderfully with everyday
food. Sweet wines from the Loire Valley, such as Coteaux du Layon or Vouvray
moelleux, are lovely with all manner of fish dishes.
Ruby port is delicious
with steaks or burgers on the grill. And almost all sweet wines are perfect
foils for sharp cheeses such as Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, or
So what separates a spectacular Sauternes from a mediocre Manischewitz?
and complexity. One thing all great dessert wines have in common is a bright
to counterbalance the sweetness. A low-acid sweet wine is a little like
syrup: delicious at first sip, but monotonous and dull in quantity. As for
complexity, a sweet wine should be a lot more than grapey sugar water. It
should change and develop and grow just like dry wine, and the sugar should
enhance (not bury) those qualities.
There are a lot of different styles of dessert wine, many more than we could
sensibly list here. And so I'm going to focus on one particular genre: sweet
wines made from dried or partially dried grapes. (I'll leave other styles for
If left alone by growers and Mother Nature, grapes can get extremely ripe and
sweet on the vine. Grapes picked at this point yield "late harvest" wines,
which are high in alcohol
and quite sweet (although they can also be vinified
dry with special yeasts).
But winemakers, in their infinite ingenuity, have figured out ways to
accelerate and imitate the process. An effect similar to late harvesting can be
accomplished by removing water from the grape. When it happens on the vine,
it's called passerillage. Because of the vagaries of late-season
weather, this is a risky way to make sweet wine, but many spectacular dessert
wines -- like Vouvray moelleux -- are made this way.
More common is letting picked grapes dry on straw mats, on wires, or in a
special facility -- all techniques that are particularly widespread in Italy.
Popular sweet wines made in this fashion include vin santo and any wine whose
name includes the word "recioto," such as
recioto di Soave and
recioto della Valpolicella.
Another way grapes can be dried -- the squeamish should skip this paragraph --
is via a special mold called Botrytis cinerea, or "noble rot," which
sometimes feeds on the sweet nectar of late-season grapes. Botrytis-affected
grapes are a shriveled, grayish, nasty-looking mess. But the wine made from
such grapes is stunningly concentrated and rich. The greatest (and often most
expensive) dessert wines from most countries -- Sauternes, Barsac, and
Monbazillac from the Bordeaux region of France;
Alsatian sélection des
grains nobles; German trockenbeerenauslese; and others -- are born from these
Ultimately, though, there's no substitute for tasting these succulent sweet
things yourself. And so, here are a few worth tracking down:
Recioto della Valpolicella. These wines have a dense,
prune-like flavor, and can range from off-dry to medium-sweet. Look for bottles
from Mazzi, Allegrini, Dal Forno, and Quintarelli, though the latter two will
be quite expensive.
Recioto di Soave. Takes the sometimes innocuous Soave flavors and bats
them out of the park. The richness of this light-colored sweet white is
balanced by a certain delicacy. Look for bottles from producers Anselmi,
Pieropan, and Ca'Rugate.
Sauternes/Barsac. Chateau d'Yquem is the superstar among Sauternes
producers (and very expensive), but you can easily track down bottles from
other top producers, like Rieussec or Filhot. Among Barsac producers, seek out
Climens and Doisy-Vedrines. Bargain hunters should pick freely from the wines
of such regions as Monbazillac and Ste-Croix-du-Mont. All these deep golden
wines share an unctuous richness akin to sweet butter, and many taste strongly
Other. Many of the best dried-grape wines carry proprietary names. One
of the most spectacular is the Maculan Torcolato, a decadent and almost
gelatinous explosion of fruit that makes you want to drink more and more and
more (I say this from experience). The Maculan Acininobili is a richer,
botrytized version of the same wine, and much more expensive.
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
The Uncorked archive