Sweet wines can have a sour reputation among wine consumers. Wines with intricate layers of sweetness were historically once revered. Still, drier styles have become more prevalent in recent decades, unfairly relegating sweet wines to the sidelines by those who associate sweetness with a lack of sophistication.
Part of this shift is due to mass-production brands that use sugar to mask flaws in the wine or make it easier to drink. This strategy unjustly feeds the narrative that sweetness indicates a shoddy caliber of winemaking technique or poor wine quality.
Truthfully, sweet wines boast a heritage that predates the modern wine trend, establishing themselves as pillars of viticultural artistry. For example, Chateau d’Yquem is a First Growth property in the renowned 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. The chateau produces Sauternes, a sweet wine from Sémillon grapes impacted by noble rot, or botrytis.
For many producers, making sweet wines is an exercise in skill, patience and precision. From the sun-kissed vineyards of Sauternes to the frost-kissed grapes of Eiswein, highlighting the intricate dance between sugar and acidity requires winemaking skill and dedication.
Sweet Wine Production Methods
There are three primary methods of producing sweet wines. One focuses on the grapes while still on the vine, while the other two center around the winemaking process.
If a vineyard manager chooses the first option, the grapes dry on the vine, reducing the water content in the grapes and increasing the sugars. Alternatively, the grapes succumb to noble rot, such as with Sauternes. Both processes are very tricky to do well and require highly skilled labor.
For the second option, winemakers can stop the fermentation process before it finishes. Most wines are fermented to the point of dry, meaning the yeast consumes all the sugars in the juice, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. However, if the yeast is unable to complete that process, sugar remains in the wine, increasing the overall sweetness. One way this can happen is through fortification (adding a spirit to the juice), making the alcohol level too high for the yeast to survive and killing it before the fermentation process is complete. The other method is simply removing the yeast through a filter so it is no longer in the juice fermenting the wine.
Lastly, winemakers can add sweetness to the wine during the fermentation process. Most countries do not allow for the addition of sugar to the wine, so using sweetening components is a workaround, such as unfermented juice from another wine. This strategy is typically only with entry-level wines.
Here are five wine styles that use these production methods.
When thinking about sweet wines (aka dessert wines), most consumers think of fortified wines. These wines are fortified with grape spirits, which raise the alcohol level.
Not all fortified wines are sweet, however. The sweetness of the wine depends on when the fortification happens. If the wine is fortified after fermentation, it will be a dry wine, such as Fino or Manzanilla sherry. However, if the wine is fortified before fermentation, it will be sweet.
Regarding sweet sherry fortification, there are two ways to make it. PX sherry (Pedro Ximenez) and Moscatel use naturally sweet grapes that do not fully ferment before the winemaker fortifies the wine, resulting in leftover sugars. On the other hand, Pale Cream and Cream sherries start dry, and then the winemaker fortifies and sweetens the wine afterwards.
Port is always made by fortifying the wine pre-fermentation, meaning all Port is sweet. Sherry and Port are the primary fortified wines consumers will see in stores. However, there is also Madeira, which comes from the Portuguese archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Madeira has drier and sweeter styles similar to sherry.
From Sicily, Marsala is similar to Port in its production style (pre-fermentation fortification) but uses the Solera system from sherry production.
Rounding out the list is Vin Doux Naturel from France and Australia’s Rutherglen Muscat.
Fungus attacking grapes seems like something to avoid, but when done right, it can make some world-class sweet wines.
Known as “noble rot” or scientifically Botrytis cinerea, this fungus shrivels the grapes by dehydrating them, leaving the sugar. That means the resulting wines require more grapes to produce them, increasing the sweetness and often alcohol as well. Additionally, botrytis can impart honey or ginger flavors to the wine.
Winemakers have to be careful and precise with this process, and the growing conditions must be perfect. Ideally, early mornings that are moist from fog or humidity that transition to clear days after the wind blows the moisture away. Workers must hand-harvest these grapes to carefully select the right fruit.
The results include high-quality wines such as Sauternes from France, Spätlese Riesling from Germany, and Tokaji Aszu from Hungary.
Late harvest wines are a broader category of sweet wines, including botrytis-impacted grapes or grapes with naturally high sugars. As the name suggests, the idea is to delay picking the grapes one or two months after harvest. Leaving certain grapes on the vine longer can increase the ripening period, raising sugar levels.
Grapes like Muscat, Semillon, and Riesling have the right balance of sugar and acid to make harvesting later more viable. Further, vineyard managers have more time to let growing conditions change, such as the cold temperatures in Canada or the foggy conditions of Sauternes.
Ice wine, or Eiswein in German, is a unique kind of late-harvest sweet wine where grapes are left on the vine to freeze before harvesting. The water in the grapes freezes, leaving the sugars and producing a sweet wine.
In most wine regions, this process is nearly impossible because the winters do not get cold enough to consistently freeze the grapes. However, in areas like Canada, northern parts of the United States, Germany, and Austria, the weather gets cold enough early enough to produce these wines. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Vidal, and Seyval Blanc are the typical grapes for making ice wine.
Appassimento wine is somewhat the opposite of ice wine as it requires warmth instead of cold. Instead of leaving the grapes on the vine to freeze, the grapes are picked at the proper acidity level and placed in crates to dry out, concentrating the sugars. This process can also encourage botrytis, which adds a layer of complexity to the resulting wines.
The most famous grape for appassimento production is Corvina, which, blended with Corvinone and Rondinella, produces Amarone. Amarone della Valpolicella, from northeastern Italy, is the most renowned style of this wine. However, all over the world, winemakers will use Barbera, Sangiovese, and Vidal in appassimento-style wines.