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February 17, 2015 | Matt Mills

An Introduction to Sweet Wines

 

As Kellie discussed in last week's blog post, an often overlooked wine style is dessert or richly sweet wines. She used the example of Sauternes, the great sweet wine region of Bordeaux, and its significnace in history as well as at the dinner table. This week I want to delve a little futher into the most common sweet wines you'll come across at a restaurant, how they're produced, what to expect when you enjoy them...and why you should enjoy them!

Generally speaking, sweetness in wine is a factor of both growing condition and production tehcnique. Sugar is either residual, meaning fermentation did not completely convert it all to alcohol, or less commonly, a winemaker can add a small amount of sugar to the wine after fermentation (such as the dosage in sparkling wine production). Whatever the case may be, sweetness can add an important textural and flavor component to the wine.

 

 

There is a catagory of lightly sweet wines - both sparkling and still - that although not part of this discussion are still worth mentioning. On sparkling wine labels you can see wording such as demi-sec, doux or dolce to indicate a level of sweetness, whereas "brut" would indicate being closer to dry. On still white wines, most commonly Riesling, Viognier and Gewurztraminer (although not Baldacci's Gewurztraminer which happens to have nearly zero residual sugar) there can be a delicate, moderate sweetness.

With regard to richly sweet wines that often accompany a dessert pairing, two categories tend to dominate the discussion: late harvest and fortified wines. While this is a gross simplification, late harvest includes the famous noble rot botrytis and ice wine, whereas fortified includes Vin Doux Naturel, Sherry, Madeira and the most well-known, Port

It seems that most people, even the most ardent wine lovers, forego these styles because they don't like the idea of an overly sweet, viscous, syrupy wine. The shame is that just as much care, time and handling go into the production of these wines (sometimes even more so than traditional still wines). However, when they are made properly and paired accordingly, you'll experience some of the most rich, luscious and fragrant wines in the world.

Late harvest means exactly that: grapes that are left on the vine and harvested much later in the season. The region that the grapes are grown in will determine whether that wine will become noble rot, an ice wine or a sweet red wine. Noble rot is the effect of a fungus called botrytis slowly dehydrating individual grapes to increase sugar content, and only happens in ideal environments (misty mornings with sunshine throughout the day). Sauternes, Tokaji from Hungary and some classification of German Riesling fall into this category, and the wines generally share a "honey" - like or honeysuckle flavor profile. The honey profile is best balanced by a complementary amount of acid. These wines command a premium due to the hand harvesting that occurs at the individual grape level as well as the small amount that a vineyard can produce.

Ice wine is popular in regions where the temperature drops to freezing after the harvest season and the wine is generally clear of botrytis. The grapes have a higher concentration of sugar as the moisture within the grape is frozen. Canada, specifically Ontario, has become a market leader in this segment. Although any grape variety could be used, usually you need a hearty vine like Riesling that can withstand the colder, continental climate.

With fortified wines, Port always leads the discussion. Fortified wines start their life as normal still wine with primary fermentation, but then receive a kick from a grape-derived spirit like brandy to halt fermentation, preserve sugar and boost the alcohol content. Although port-style wines are made around the world, Port's home is really in Portugal with roots dating back over 300 years. There are many styles of Port from ruby (young, fruity, fresh) to tawny (aged, oxidative, blended) to acclaimed Colheita (single vintage, aged). Each classificiation distinction would indicate any barrel aging, blending, or oxidative aging.

Cheers...and be sure to drink your dessert next time!

 

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