Sweet wines are no longer the preserve of dessert menus. They’ve come into their own in the last few years and are a wonderful way to enjoy the fruit of the vine if you’ve got a sweet tooth.
Unlike dry wine, sweet wines have high amounts of residual sugar – hence the name. They also have a wonderful shelf-life as the sugar acts as a preservative, so they can age comfortably for 20+ years.
Ready to learn more about the wine that’s loaded with enough sugar to bake a cake?
What Are Sweet Wines?
Simply, sweet wines have fairly high amounts of residual sugar. Whether white, red or rose, there are five main groupings of sweet wines. These include Moscato (Southern Italy), White Zinfandel (attributed to California), Riesling (Germany), Port (Portuguese fortified wine) and Sauternes (Bordeaux region of France).
How Is Sweet Wine Made?
There are several methods which include:
- Halting fermentation: Here the winemaker stops the fermentation process before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, leaving the wine with a good amount of residual sugar.
- Using very ripe grapes: The winemaker uses riper grapes as the yeast dies down when alcohol levels reach 10-16%. This leaves the wine holding the sweetness of the residual sugar.
- Water evaporation: Drying grapes in the sun concentrates the sugars as the water evaporates, resulting in a high sugar level that stays after fermentation.
- Filtration: Here the wine is filtered after the desired level of sweetness is reached. This removes the yeast, stopping the fermentation.
Sweet Wine Types
Moscato: Made from the Muscat grape, Moscato is grown in southern Italy with sunny and fruity notes. It features honeysuckle and orange blossom aromas, and it may be still, frizzante or sparkling. Its hues range from white to red.
White Zinfandel: White Zinfandel is a sweet rosé wine made with red Zinfandel grapes by limiting grape juice skin contact time. The red skins impart tannins and a slight blush to the wine. The first rosé made from Zinfandel grapes is attributed to California’s El Pinal Winery in 1869.
Riesling: A German varietal, Riesling is said to produce the perfect combination of sweetness and acidity. With aromas of citrus and fruit orchards, many enjoy the subtle counterpoint of petrol to the honey notes.
Port: Port is made in Portugal by adding distilled grape spirit to the wine in the middle of the fermentation process. This makes for a higher alcohol and residual sugar content. It’s very fruity with what some term a “lush” viscosity. If port is aged in barrels, it gradually oxidises, resulting in a tawny port ̶ full of notes of caramel and a nutty character. Port is generally drunk after dinner as dessert wines, but this is not the rule.
Sauternes: Grown in the Bordeaux region of France, Sauternes are made from grapes treated with botrytis cinerea (a fungus cultivated by vinters), also known as “the noble rot”. It is grown on varietals of Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle and it assists in concentrating sugars. This process results in a gorgeous golden-to-copper coloured wine with notes of peaches, honey and nuts and is quite sweet.
Ice wines are the preserve of cold climate countries such as Germany and Canada. Often enjoyed on its own after a meal as a dessert in a glass, Eiswein is harvested in deep cold or in the dead of night with no noble rot.
And don’t forget Hungarian and Slovakian Tokaj originating around 1530, the only two countries permitted to use this name. A beautifully golden yellow colour results from a late harvest following cold winters. Tokaj pairs perfectly with full cream mature cheeses, fruit desserts and rich ganache.
Port Wine And Moscato
The most important difference between Moscato and Port is the grapes they are produced from. Port grapes are grown and cultivated in the Douro region of Portugal, while grapes for Muscat wines are grown worldwide. Muscat grapes are very sweet and fruity. The sweet and floral notes of the wine pair beautifully with sharp cheeses and spicy Indian and Thai cuisines.
Port must be produced in Portugal in order to use the name and in some areas, the grapes are still crushed by human feet. After the first fermentation, distilled brandy is added to stop fermentation and capture the aromas at their peak. This process results in high residual sugars and high alcohol content.
After the first fermentation stage, the base wine is then fortified using brandy to stop the process and capture the aromas at their peak. This also maintains a higher percentage of residual sugars than normal, which provides port wine with its sweetness and high alcohol content.
What Is The Sweetest Wine?
Recioto della Valpolicella is thought to be the sweetest wine around. Hailing from the wine region around Verona in Italy, it is famous for bold and dry Amarone wines. Recioto della Valpolicella (“Retch-ee-oh-toe”) uses the same passito process as Amarone where grapes are dried on mats to concentrate sugars. Here the fermentation stops before all the sugars have fermented. Drinking Recioto is likened to liquid chocolates covered cherries.
What Is The Most Popular Sweet Wine?
Californian Zinfandel are very popular for wine newbies and prices won’t break the bank either. Another popular varietal is the French Vouvrays.
10 Of The Best Sweet Wines
Break the budget: Many on this list from across the globe are drop-jawed expensive with most considered top drawer sweet wines. Interestingly, the choice includes Vin de Constance (#1), grown and made in Constantia in the Cape and the Canadian ice wine, 2006 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc (#2).
In the mid-range category, Vietti Moscato d’Asti (#3) is considered a very good all-rounder with an affordable price tag. Others include Peter Lauer Barrel X (#4), Niepoort Ruby Port (#5), Champalou Vouvray La Cuvée des Fondraux (#6) and Laurent-Perrier Harmony Demi-Sec (#7).
For those of us on a tight budget the following are a good bet which won’t break the bank: Domaine des Nouelles Rosé d’Anjou (#8), Sourgal Moscato d’Asti (#9) and Patrick Bottex Bugey-Cerdon La Cueille (#10).
Best Sweet Wines For Beginners
Many newbies start their sweet wine journey with Riesling and Moscato as their palates are often repulsed by very strong tannins. If your budget will stretch that far, the Hungarian Tokaj is wonderfully sweet. Rieslings are good with spicy Indian and Vietnamese cuisine whereas Sauternes pair well with fatty meats such as lamb, duck and salty hams.
If you are really serious about educating your palate for sweet wines and don’t know where to start, try Risata Moscato d’Asti. Not only is it bottled in beautiful blue glass, but it’s also priced right at GBP 3.70, is not overly heavy and can be enjoyed equally with spicy world cuisine and or a light brunch.
Whether you’re a seasoned wine drinker or a complete novice starting your grape journey, remember, the best way to learn about sweet wines is to drink them.