Actually that’s not true. I’m more likely to order a second appetizer or a cheese plate instead of dessert, but I do really like sweet wines.
Sweet wines, like Riesling (REES-ling), are underappreciated. They’ve experienced short periods of popularity dating back to ancient times; the most admired wines of classic Rome were white and sweet and in the Middle Ages, several city states in Italy like Venice and Genoa profited from producing sweet wines. After that, the Dutch Wine Trade was making sweet loot from the sweet wines of western France in the late 17th century.
So, how do you get a sweet wine? Well, the most common way is to add some form of sweet grape juice and then stabilize it, so the yeast don’t start feeding on the additional sugar, which would start a second fermentation. The best sweet wines, however, are made by concentrating the sugar in the grapes. You can do this three ways.
1. noble rot, where a fungus pierces the skin of the grapes and sucks out the excess moisture (this category is called botrytized wines because the technical name for the fungus is botrytis cinerea)
2. Process frozen grape clusters, either by letting the grapes freeze on the vine or by using a freezer after harvest (this category is eiswein)
3. Dry mature grapes on the vine or after picking (this category is dried grape wines)
What counts as sweet? Wines taste sweet mostly because of the residual sugar they contain, but our perception of this can be altered by acidity, tannins, presence of carbon dioxide and serving temperature. Alcohol can also taste sweet. For example, a Chardonnay with only 2 g/l of residual sugar that is high in alcohol can taste sweet, while a sweet Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley) that contains over 30 g/l of residual sugar may taste dry when it’s young. Two other complicating factors: different terms are used in different languages to describe sweetness and only sparkling wine producers are required to indicate the sweetness level of their wines on the label.
I’ve recreated a chart I found helpful in The Oxford Companion to Wine:
|Residual Sugar (RS) g/l||English||French||German||Italian||Spanish|
|up to 4 (or not exceeding 9 as long as the acidity is within 2 g of the RS)||dry||sec||trocken||secco or asciutto||seco|
(or medium sweet)
|at least 45||sweet||doux||süss||dolce||dulce|
So, why don’t more people like sweet wine? New wine drinkers often prefer some residual sugar in their wine, so perhaps sweetness in wine has become associated with a lack of sophistication. Others might fear that a dessert wine will be too sweet or cloying, but as long as there’s enough acidity to balance the sweetness, it will be anything but.
Here’s a food and wine pairing trick to try – pair a sweet wine with something sweet for dessert and together, both the wine and the dessert will seem less sweet. This is not intuitve for most people – 1+1 does not equal 2.
Here are some of my favorite matches: chocolate-based desserts with Banyuls (a fortified wine from southern France) or Tawny Port, nut-based desserts with Oloroso Sherry or Vin Santo (dried grape wine from Tuscany) and fruit-based desserts (especially berries) with Moscato d’Asti (a sweet sparkler from northern Italy) or Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (a vin doux naturel from the Rhône Valley). Many sweet wines, like Sauternes (botrytized wine from Bordeaux) or Madeira are brilliant with a cheese course if finishing savory is more your style.
Let your preconceptions go and have a little something sweet. They’re some of the best wines in the world.
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