A Sweet Story - A Guide to Sweet Wine Styles
Friday, July 18, 2014 in News
It’s difficult to believe now, but sweet wines used to rule the wine world. From the exotic and enchanting wines of Tokjai and the delicious delicacy and purity of Mosel Rieslings to the rich unctuous wines of Sauternes, there was a time when sweet wines were the most highly prized and revered wines in the world.
The production of sweet wines has a very long history. Indeed, the very first mention of sweet wines comes from a poem ‘The Works and Day’s' by Greek poet Hesiod dating from around 700 BCE. The poem describes the production of Cypriot Manna, a sweet straw wine known today as Cyprus’ very own Commanderia.
When you consider it from a historical perspective, it’s no surprise that sweet wines were considered the finest in the world, as they were likely the most stable. Before modern winemaking and refrigeration, the easiest way to increase stability in wine was to increase the sugar content in the must. This was best accomplished by drying the grapes in the sun after harvest. This tradition continues today, particularly in Italy which boasts a staggering 43 types of ‘passito’- style wines, including the best known Vin Santo.
Advances in technology particularly since the 1970’s has seen a global swing away from sweet wines in favour of dry. This shift was aided along by a the huge volumes of poor quality sweet table wines that flooded global markets in the 60’s and 70’s leading wine educators and critics to espouse the virtues of dry wine as being somehow ‘superior’ to sweet. In subsequent years, sweet wines have become an afterthought - relegated to dessert, rather than being enjoyed throughout a meal or even as an aperitif.
Unfortunately this global shift in preference towards dry wines has had a devastating impact on the market for sweet wines. Luckily for wine lovers however, producers around the world still dedicate themselves to making an incredible array of sweet wines. For those willing to explore and experiment – there is a world of delicious, versatile and amazing sweet wines to discover.
Below is a quick guide to some of the best known sweet table wine styles.
Late Harvest wines are exactly as they suggest - the grapes are left on the vine longer, causing the grapes to dehydrate, essentially concentrating the levels of sugar in the grapes. Late harvest styles can range from being just off-dry to very sweet depending on how long the grapes are left on the vine. Delicious late harvest styles are made all over the world, with the most famous being the Vendange Tardive styles from Alsace, and the ‘Spätlese’ wines of Germany.
Unctuous and rich often with flavours of candied citrus and barley sugar, these are some of the most famous sweet wines in the world. Noble rot is caused by a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea. If conditions are right (foggy humid mornings and warm dry afternoons) the fungus will attack the grapes, causing them to shrivel and dehydrate, concentrating the sugars. Botrytis does not attack the grapes evenly, so pickers must make several passes through a vineyard in order to harvest the fully botrytised grapes, an expensive and time-consuming process. There is an array of noble rot wines made around the world.
Australia produces many noble rot wines, the most famous being the Langton’s Classified ‘Outstanding’ De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon. Outside of Australia, the Bordeaux appellations of Sauternes and Barsac (and satellite appellations of Cadillac and Monbazillac) make unctuous rich botrytis wines from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Noble rot wines are also produced in Hungary’s Tokaji region and in Germany where the Prädikat system designations of Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese indicates an ever increasing proportion of botrytis-affected grapes in the must.
STRAW WINES (PASSITO)
The most ancient way of making sweet wines involves laying on grapes on straw mats to dehydrate and raisin in the sun, before being pressed and made into wine. While drying on straw mats still occurs there is a trend towards more controlled conditions, with grapes often hung in special drying rooms to achieve dehydration. Italy makes a staggering 43 different styles of ‘passito’ style wines including famous nutty, complex Vin Santo made from Trebbiano and Malvasia. Straw wines are also made in Greece, France, Germany and Austria.
Incredibly sweet, pure and viscous, ice wine is produced from grapes that have been frozen on the vine. The grapes are pressed while still frozen and then fermented to produce tiny quantities of sweet honeyed -elixir like Ice wine. Ice wine is made in occasional years in Germany and Austria, but is most famous in Canada where the freezing conditions required to make Ice Wine are a regular feature every winter.
Andrea Pritzker, Langton's