Have you got a sweet tooth? Does the thought of a dry white wine make you recoil in horror? Or do you simply prefer the taste of a little more sugar in your tipple? If you answered yes to any – or all – of these questions, sweet white wine is your drink.
Find out all about this type of wine and what you should be drinking.
What is Sweet White Wine?
There are several different factors that determine how sweet a wine is and how it is classified. Sweet white wine can range from being only slightly sweet to so extremely sweet it’s almost like a syrup.
This variation is created by balancing the sugar and alcohol content of the wine with a contrasting amount of sour acids and bitter tannins. One of the key aspects of this process is how much residual sugar is left in the wine after fermentation.
Most of the sugar in the grapes is broken down during fermentation but a certain amount remains in the young wine. This residual sugar is measured in the number of grams per litre of wine and this system is used to classify sweet white wine.
For a wine to be categorised as sweet it must have at least 45 grams of sugar per litre of wine. This is the bare minimum level of sugar and some sweet white wine types have more than ten times this amount!
How is Sweet White Wine Made?
Many different techniques are used to raise the sugar level of sweet white wine. The more traditional methods involve increasing the concentration of sugar in the grapes before they are fermented.
This can be done by harvesting the grapes much later than usual and leaving them to partially dry out in the sun. This allows the moisture in the grapes to evaporate and concentrates the sugar.
A similar method is to first harvest the grapes and then leave them to dry out on trays or hang them in an attic to keep them out of the rain.
Another technique is to infect the grapes with a fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Commonly known as the “noble rot” this fungus is very dependent on having the right climatic conditions to grow. It allows water to evaporate from the grapes and concentrates the sugars while also adding a unique flavour.
The last way of raising the level of sugar is to freeze the grapes before they are pressed. The water turns into ice crystals which can then be filtered out with the skins leaving only the sweet grape juice.
Sweet White Wine Types
This process of concentrating the sugar content of the grapes produces the traditional type of unfortified sweet white wine. These wines have a wide range of sweetness depending on the grape variety and environmental conditions.
A similar sweet wine type can be made by adding unfermented grape juice to wine. This German technique is used to produce many popular labels of sweet and semi-sweet wine. This wine generally has a lower Alcohol By Volume (ABV) percentage.
By looking at the ABV percentage of a wine you can easily determine how sweet it is. For a wine to be classified as sweet it will have an ABV of 12.5% or lower.
Some sweet white wines are produced without the use of any added sugar or unusual harvesting methods. This is due to the exceptionally sweet grape varieties which are used to make them.
This highly aromatic variety of grape is well regarded for the sweet white wines that are made with it. The popularity of this grape means Riesling is now produced in almost every wine-growing region in the world.
In those countries with colder climates, Riesling wines have a fruity flavour with notes of apple. This contrasts to the warmer climates which have a much more citrus note. The sweetness of Riesling is well balanced by the wine’s acidity.
Riesling can be enjoyed as a young wine when the fruity notes are at their strongest or can be matured for many years. The high sugar content of some German Riesling wines can aid with the preservation of the wine.
Moscato is produced using the Moscato blanco grape. To increase the sweetness of this wine the fermentation process is stopped by cooling the wine to just above freezing point. This brings the sugar level up while reducing the alcohol content.
Moscato D’Asti is the most famous wine made with this grape variety and comes from the north of Italy. For this slightly fizzy sweet white wine, the ABV must be 5.5% or lower by law.
Traditionally this was the wine that the Italian producers kept for themselves to enjoy during lunch as the low alcohol content meant they could keep working in the afternoon. These days the Moscato grape grown is grown worldwide and acclaimed for producing some of the best sweet white wine.
This renowned sweet wine comes from the Bordeaux region of France and is produced by using a combination of three grape varieties: the muscadelle, sauvignon blanc and Semillon.
The environmental conditions in this part of France are ideal for the formation of the Botrytis fungus and this gives the wine the distinctive sweetness it is known for. Mist from the rivers in the area rise in the morning and then clears early in the day to create the perfect balance of humidity.
Typically, this sweet wine is also well balanced by its natural acidity. The flavour notes commonly associated with Sauternes are peaches and apricots with a distinct nutty element.
Best Sweet Wines
With so many sweet white wine brands to choose from you can be sure to find the perfect flavour and level of sweetness to suit your palate.
One of the best sweet wines to try is called Tokaji in Hungary, or Tokay in the rest of the world, and comes from the Tokaj wine region that spreads through Slovakia and Hungary.
Several different types of grapes are used to make this style of wine and the wine is sweetened by concentrating the sugar content of the grapes before fermentation. More sweetness is added by including juice from the Aszu berry.
Best Sweet White Wines For Beginners
As sweet white wine has none of the dry sharpness that is associated with other types of wine, they are easy for beginners to drink. Many sweet wine brands have a strong fruity note that is very easy on the palate. The delicious berry taste of Tokay is a great place to start when exploring these wines.
With its light flavour profile and bubbly sparkle, another great sweet wine for beginners is Moscato D’Asti. The low alcohol content of this wine is a good reason for beginners to start their journey into wine with something mild and easy to drink.
Best Sweet White Wines For Cooking
Generally, the high sugar content in sweeter wine will caramelise during cooking and add a whole new level of sweetness to the dish. For this reason, there are not a lot of savoury dishes that use sweet wine as an ingredient.
One tasty option is to use Riesling to make a sticky sauce for braised pork. This light meat goes perfectly with the apple notes of the wine and combined with raisins and butter you have a real treat.
Traditionally sweet wine is used to poach fruit to make a wonderful dessert. Sauternes is a great option to poach wedges of pear in as the wine compliments the fruit. Once the pear has softened just add some whipped cream to add the finishing touch.
There really are sweet white wine brands for everyone – from beginner to connoisseur – and you can try them all!