Erin Doman on January 13, 2016 3 Comments Many beginning wine drinkers may find they prefer the taste of a sweet wine, but are reluctant to admit this opinion, as certain wine snobs may consider this “unsophisticated”. However, while there are cheap and simple sweet wines, this is by no means true of all sweet wines. You can find high quality and low quality wines of all different styles, whether it is sweet or dry. A fine dessert wine can be as complex, subtle and impressive as the driest Bordeaux or Sauvignon Blanc. Moreover, the superior varieties are among the more difficult for winemakers to produce. Understanding what makes wines sweet, as well as the varieties available, is essential and delicious knowledge for any connoisseur. Late Harvest Wines Most methods of producing a sweeter wine involve concentrating the natural sugars in the grapes. One traditional method is to use grapes that have been deliberately left on the vine after the normal harvesting season, as late as November or December. The longer the grapes go unpicked, the more their sugar content increases. While these sugars can also be used to create a dry wine if they are entirely processed into alcohol, when winemakers stop the fermentation early the resultant wines are quite sweet. Germany and the Alsace and Loire regions of France produce some of the best-known late harvest wines. French wines such as Muscat and Chenin Blanc may be labeled “vendange tardive”, meaning “late harvest”. German wines are correspondingly labeled “spätlese” or, for wines from even later harvests, “auslese”, which literally translates to “select harvest”. These can include sweet Riesling and Gewürztraminer, as well as Pinot Gris. Sweet Muscato and Rieslings make good pairings for apple and other fruit desserts and soft cheeses, while a sweet Pinot Gris can complement spicy foods. Ice Wines The ice wines extend through the late harvest. The grapes used for ice wines are left on the vine so long that they freeze in winter frosts. As water freezes at a higher temperature than sugars, pressing frozen grapes produces a syrupy liquid sugar that is made into wine. While some warmer wineries in Austria and the United States may artificially freeze grapes, the best ice wines come from Canada and Germany, where regulations call for a hard freeze of 19 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Ice wines have a very concentrated, sweet taste, with a wide variety of flavors depending on the type of grape. They pair wonderfully with chocolate and caramel-topped desserts. Raisin Wines Drying grapes, either on the vine or after picking, is another way to extract the natural sugars. Also called “straw wine” due to the ancient practice of spreading grapes on straw mats to dry in the sun, wines made from raisins are rich and long-lasting. Some of Spain’s sweet sherry wines are also produced from dried grapes, following the more complex process of sherry-making. The traditional grape drying techniques originated in pre-Roman times, with most straw wines still being produced in the vicinity of northern Italy, France and Greece. Vin de Paille from the Jura region in France, Vin Santo from Tuscany and Cyprus’s legendary Commandaria are some of the best known. Vin de Paille’s flavors of apricots and peaches pair well with foie gras, while Commandaria is an excellent match to baklava and other honey and nut-based sweets. “Noble Rot” A number of dessert wines, including the acclaimed Sauternes, are surprisingly made from a seemingly unpalatable source. The fuzzy gray fungus Botrytis cinerea grows on grape skins, causing them to leak water and shrivel on the vine. Though red grapes usually fare poorly, on white grapes this “pourriture noble” or “noble rot” causes the sugars to be uniquely concentrated, making for incomparably rich and sweet wines. Because the rot destroys much of the grape’s mass, however, a large number of grapes are needed to produce a small amount of wine, making many of these wines quite costly. Sauternes wines, produced in France’s Bordeaux region, are famously collectible, sometimes aging more than a century. Chateau d’Yquem is considered the most superior of these, coming from a vineyard unusually susceptible to the noble rot. Tokaj or Tokaji wines from Hungary and Slovakia are also made from botrytis-infected Aszu grapes, stomped into a paste. Sweet German Riesling and Loire’s Chenin Blanc wines also may rely on noble rot. The honeysuckle or caramelized flavors of many of these wines pair with rich dishes such as crème brulee, heavy cakes and cheeses, while those like Chenin Blanc are an excellent counterpoint to the spice in Asian and Mexican cuisine. Fortified Wines Fortification, the process of adding grape spirits to fermenting wine, is another method of producing sweet wine. Port from the Douro region in Portugal is produced by infusing the wine vat with a spirit similar to brandy, killing off the yeast to prematurely stop the fermentation of sugar into alcohol. This excess sugar makes for a sweet and high-alcohol wine that is usually further aged in either the barrel or the bottle to bring out flavor and color. Port is often best paired with a flavor contrasting with its sweetness, such as a salty cheese. Sweet Madeira wines, also from Portugal, are fortified and then aged through the “estufagem” process, imitating the effects of a long tropical sea voyage by heating the wine casks in sauna-like rooms for months or years, and exposing the wine to air, allowing it to oxidize. Malvasia, the sweetest style of Madeira, has caramel and coffee flavors, with an acidity that makes its sweetness more refreshing than cloying. It can be paired with anything from chocolate or fruit mousses to sharp cheeses. Added Sugar For the most part, only inexpensive, low-quality wines are sweetened by adding an external ingredient. Chaptalization, the technique of adding sugar to fermenting wine, is not intended to sweeten wine, but to make a dry wine from weaker vintages by increasing the amount of sugar available to be fermented into alcohol. Most makers of quality wines refuse to add sugar after fermentation. The one major exception to this principle is Champagne. Since the second fermentation which produces the signature bubbles leaves Champagne extremely dry and acidic, doux (sweet, with roughly 2 teaspoons sugar/5 oz.) and sec (semi-sweet, with roughly 1–2 teaspoons sugar/5 oz.) Champagne is made by adding a small amount of sugar or sweet grape juice to the bottle before corking. Drawing out the natural sweetness of grapes takes time, effort and masterful skill. Luckily for us, over the centuries, many of the finest winemakers have taken up the challenge. Any wine-lover’s palate will be expanded and delighted by trying the wonderful varieties of sweet wine available.