Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from a surgery to repair an aortic dissection we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is another from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Thanks Tom!
Following up on Carl’s blog last week on aging wines and sweetness, here is a brief overview of a category that is bigger and more diverse than many people might expect: Dessert Wines. Each category could be its own blog (if you’re geeky enough)! Sweet wines are not consumed with near the frequency of dry wines, other than the semi-sweet wines like Moscato and Riesling. But the very sweet “dessert wines” are made all over the world and can be sublimely delicious. I will focus on these types and their various methods and regions of production.
There are several methods of producing sweet wines, often rooted in cultural traditions and/or climatic circumstances:
Fortified wines, such as Port, certain types of Sherry and Madeira are made by adding neutral spirits (distilled wine/brandy) to wine to arrest the fermentation process, leaving residual sugar that would normally be fermented away for a dry wine. This often creates a product stronger in alcohol than a regular table wine. Different aging processes (in the case of Madeira and sweet Sherries, intentional exposure to oxygen and heat) and different grape varieties, lead to different styles and sweetness levels. While these wines are great upon release, because of the sugar levels and fortification, these wines can age very well… some for decades.
Ports are made from blending several grape varieties but primarily using Touriga Nacional (small, red wine grape). Sweet Sherries are made predominately from Pedro Ximenez (white Spanish wine grape) and Palamino grapes (white grape widely grown in Spain and South Africa) and are usually labeled Oloroso (but there is also dry Oloroso) and PX.
- There is a fortified wine tradition in southern France, mostly in the southern Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon regions. These wines are known as Vin Doux Naturel. Both reds and whites are made, typically from Grenache and Muscat, respectively, although other varieties indigenous to the areas are permitted. Appellations for reds are: Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes. Whites are typically from Beaumes de Venises and Rivesaltes.
Late harvest wines are wines made from grapes that have been picked later than the grapes used for dry wines. The longer the grapes are left on the vine, the more the natural sugars are concentrated and the grapes become sweeter, effectively on their way to being raisins. Some of the greatest of these occur in Alsace in eastern France and are labeled “Vendange Tardive” (literally “late harvest”) and in Germany, known as Spätlese (literally “left late”). While most late harvest wines tend to be white, there are also late harvest Zinfandels and other red grapes which also make good sweet wines. An excellent Napa late harvest white is Grgich Hills Estate’s Violetta.
Botrytis /Noble Rot: Botrytis Cinerea is a fungus that grows on grapes in the autumn as rain and humidity levels increase. It dehydrates the grape, concentrating the sugars. These wines usually have unctuous aromas and flavors of honey and dried apricots and spices like cinnamon and allspice.
- Sweet wine made from grapes affected with what is known as “noble rot” are common in Bordeaux (in the southern appellations of Sauternes, Barsac and Monbazillac) where they are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, in Hungary (Tokaj), made from the Furmint grape and Germany, most commonly made from Riesling. Just for fun these German botrytised wines are labeled, in order of sweetness, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trokenbeerenauslese.
Vin de Paille/Straw Mat-dried wines are traditionally made in eastern France in the Jura region near Switzerland and in many regions of Italy. Grapes are dried in the sun or on racks in ventilated buildings so that again, the sugars become concentrated. These wines have aromas of stewed and dried fruits and have hints (or more) of raisin and prunes on the finish.
Ice Wine (Eiswein in German) is primarily a German and Austrian tradition but great wines of this type are now made in Canada, the Finger Lakes region of New York and even in Michigan. The grapes are left on the vine until after the first hard frost and often picked and pressed at night to keep what juice remains in the grape as cold and sweet as possible. For this reason Ice Wine is usually expensive because it takes many more grapes to produce the same juice as ripe grapes at the normal harvest time. Ice wine is a very age worthy wine and becomes viscous, almost syrupy with time.
Sparkling Wine. Many are familiar with the sweet sparkling wines of Italy: Asti Spumanti and Lambrusco. But most places that make sparkling wine make a sweet version. These are labelled Demi-Sec (“half dry”), and Doux (sweet). Just for fun (again it’s a regulated graduation of sugar levels) in between Brut and Doux are Extra Dry (sweeter than Brut) and Dry (yup, sweeter than Extra Dry)!
- In France’s Loire Valley sweet sparkling Vouvray is labeled Moelleux.
- Sweet sparkling wines are made in other places as well, including Australia’s sparkling Shiraz.
These wines cover many styles and are more versatile than might be expected. In Spain and Portugal they are drunk straight through the meal. They pair wonderfully with cheese and desserts, dishes with a sweet fruit-based sauce and of course, especially the red ones, with the main food group: chocolate.
I am among the group of people who does not love semi-sweet wines but loves a well-made very sweet wine. I’m partial to Sauternes, Port and Sherry but have enjoyed all the others I have tasted. I urge everyone to try them when possible to see what type you like best.
As always, thanks for taking time to read this. I hope you find it interesting. I know that my posts tend to be geekier than Carl’s posts, so if it’s not what you prefer to read, please let me know!
Best wishes to Carl as he continues his speedy recovery.
Calendar of Events
- March 3rd – National Mulled Wine Day
- April 17th – International Malbec Day
- May 4th – International Sauvignon Blanc Day
- May 9th – National Moscato Day
- May 21st – National Chardonnay Day
- May 25th – National Wine Day
- June 11th – National Rosé Wine Day