Part Three: Getting Your Sweet Started - Sweet Secrets of Australia & Bordeaux
There are many ways to get started on your sweet wine journey without breaking the bank. A good way is to look for domestic wines labelled 'Late Harvest' - most California wine regions have winemakers who produce these gently aromatic, more affordable sweet wines, but do note that the best of these should be made with grapes that have a natural acidity to balance the cloying quality that can turn so many away from sweet wines. And New York's Niagara and Finger Lakes wine regions, in addition to stunning (and stunningly expensive) ice wines, produce some delightful late harvest wines from the hybrid Vidal.
Check out the Loire’s Vouvray for excellently priced medium sweet wines from Chenin Blanc, or Jurancon, France, for wines from Petit Manseng, a grape that is also responsible for charming off-dry wines from Virginia. Or, for something a little sweeter – Muscat Beaumes de Venise or Reccioto della Valpolicella. And, if you are looking for something more off-dry than sweet, look to Germany for a Kabinett or Spatlese Riesling, or to Alsace for Pinot Gris (check the sweetness level on the bottle)*.
Or, go a bit further off the beaten path to some of the sweet wine world's best kept secrets – the overlooked molleux and liquoreux wines of Bordeaux – and Noble One, a wine to rival Sauternes from, of all places, one of Australia’s bulk wine capitals. While these wines are not widely accessible in the US, they can be found with some detective work – and can show up at good prices on wine lists.
THE NOBLE SECRET OF AUSTRALIA
In 2019, I visited the Riverina region of Australia, a dusty, fertile, deeply agricultural area reminiscent of California’s Lodi, with deep Italian roots. The area grows so much citrus it has an orange festival each year, and is principally known as a bulk wine region and, famously, as the home of ‘critter’ wines, i.e. Casella the parent company of Yellow Tail, which produces over 12.5 million cases of wine a year.
But, Riverina is also home to Australia’s most awarded wine: Noble One, a botrytized, or noble rot, Semillon, the star grape of France's Sauternes. Riverina is generally warm and dry, but with its multiple rivers, some rainfall, and humidity late in the season, it has the perfect conditions for the aroma/flavor concentrating magic of botrytis.
Noble One does not begin to have the centuries of history that the most famous noble rot wines, Sauternes and Tokaji, have, but it does come from one of the largest and oldest family wineries in Australia - De Bortoli. The wine itself dates back 40 years to when Darren De Bortoli, the third generation scion of the family, was inspired by a 1975 Château Coutet, a first growth Sauternes, while studying winemaking at Roseworthy College in Adelaide. There was already plenty of Semillon growing in Riverina vineyards and, given the late season misty mornings and dry afternoons, De Bortoli was convinced the botrytis fungus would show up. So, in 1982, spurred by that Chateau Coutet, he asked some local growers, who had a glut of grapes with no buyers, to let their grapes go ‘rotten’ on the vine.
They thought he was mad but, as it turned out the fungus worked its remarkable alchemy and the result was stunning: the first Noble One was born – and almost immediately won awards. That 1982 vintage was named to the Decanter Magazine “Hall of Fame.” The wine was named for its inspiration, Sauternes, until 1994, when it become Noble One and, to date, it has received over 182 trophies and 505 gold medals.
So, is it really that good? Absolutely.
When I was in Riverina, Julie Mortlock, the winemaker who has helped Darren DeBortoli craft Noble One since 2002, hosted me for a cellar tasting of multiple vintages of Noble One.
As Julie said, with these wines, we just “need mother nature to do the right thing at the right time” which, except for two rainy, flooded vintages, she has. The wines see about 50% new oak and are rich and luscious, exploding with stone fruits, orange and spice, with the delicate balance of their sweetness struck with a singing acidity.
Of the many vintages we tasted, the 1990 was the standout, proving the longevity and age-worthiness of this wine. How to describe? It conjured up the marmalades that my mother made when I was a child: orange rinds and sugar boiled up in a big kettle suffusing the house with the pungent tang of citrus, the chewy, caramelized rinds tasting like a toffee apple, but with an orange in the center instead. That was followed on the palate with fat apricots, spun caramel, shattered crème brulee shell, sultanas, flecks of preserved ginger, marzipan, toasted almonds, and a forever finish dripping with honeycomb. Nirvana indeed. This is a wine that calls out to be paired with a Tarte Tatin, an English fruitcake, a rich pate dressed with figs or a thick and oozing chunk of Stilton - or, if the rare opportunity to taste it arises, it does brilliantly on its glorious own.
I brought a couple of bottles of the much younger 2016 Noble One home in my suitcase, and tested them out at a blind tasting with some of my fellow WSET Diploma colleagues. I served it with a fig, blue cheese and arugula pizza, which beautifully complemented the wine's bright citrus, fresh peaches and nectarines, its zap of ginger, beeswax, and orange peel offsetting the tang of the arugula. Of the 30 bottles of extraordinary wines from across the world sampled by those very discerning palates at that tasting, Noble One stood on its own pedestal.
THE SWEET SECRETS OF BORDEAUX
When most people think of sweet wine and Bordeaux, they think of Sauternes, but there is a world of wonderful and, believe it or not, low-priced wines produced in Bordeaux that are some of the best kept secrets of the sweet wine world.
Made from the same grapes as Sauternes - Semillon for body, richness and ageability, Sauvignon Blanc for acid and aromatics, and Muscadelle for floral notes – and vinified medium-dry to sweet and luscious, they are delightful and versatile wines - excellent for food pairing, aperitifs or dessert wines.
I was lucky enough to be part of a tasting presented in one of the discovery sessions at the 2021 Wine Media Conference held in Eugene Oregon by the Union des Vins Doux de Bordeaux. A sweet wine tasting? Oh yes please.
This lesser known collection of Bordeaux appellations, ‘Sweet Bordeaux’.' produces about 4 million bottles annually, representing only about 1% of Bordeaux production and comprises 8 appellations and 350 family wineries that slope along 4,200 acres of low-yielding vineyards on gravel, limestone and/or clay, mainly on banks on the right sides of the Garonne River (across from Sauternes). This location is critical to the creation of conditions for noble rot – early morning mists and late, lingering autumn afternoon sun – as well as for extra ripeness.
The medium sweet, or molleux wines (under 45g/l sugar) from Sweet Bordeaux are usually made from late harvest and/or extra-ripe grapes, and are found in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Bordeaux Moelleux, Bordeaux Supérieur, and Saint-Macaire appellations, while the more luscious wines or liquoureux (over 45g/l sugar), are almost always impacted by noble rot and found in the appellations of Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, and Cérons.
Meticulously hand-harvested, these wines offer a range of food-friendly and aromatic palettes that mirror the vastly more expensive wines of Sauternes and Barsac – and they are remarkably affordable. Sadly, only about 35%of these wines are exported but Sweet Bordeaux is on a mission to increase awareness and consumption of these charming wines in the US, which was part of the mission of the WMC tasting.
For that tasting, the wines were matched with wasabi, almonds, barbecue potato chips, blue cheese and apricots, and, as an indication of how very food friendly and versatile these wines are, every pairing worked! Of the wines we tasted, below is a sample of my favorites. Sweet Bordeaux encourages consumers to be casual about these wines, which should be well chilled, even suggesting ice cubes and mixers. I am a bit more of a purist than that, so I recommend enjoying them in their naked delight and paired with food – and, because they are so affordable, there is plenty of room for experimentation.
Bordeaux Blanc Moelleux AOC – can be produced throughout Bordeaux, but the best will be close to the Garonne. These are unmistakably sweet, but among the lightest wines of Sweet Bordeaux. The sample we tasted was a 2019 Chateau Le Hargue and it had a remarkable delicacy with layers of lime, orange peel, yellow apples and ripe peaches plus zingy acidity – a perfect match for spicy Thai shrimp, an apricot galette or a goat cheese and golden beet salad. If you can find it, it retails for an astonishing $11, perhaps because this is the only one of these appellations that allows machine harvesting.
Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC – on the right bank of the Garonne, produces opulent wines impacted by noble rot. Chateau des Arroucats 2017 is a luscious, complex wine, vinified without oak and balanced with fresh acid and has a long finish with waves of botrytis complexity – orange marmalade, apricots, and ripe mango. It is a fresh wine that could age a few more years. My jaw dropped when I found out it was only about $15 a bottle.
Saint Macaire AOC – also right bank, produces medium sweet, lively wines. The 2016 Chateau Majoureau is jaunty with lemon zest, pineapple, sweet spices, candied oranges and a touch of marzipan. This one has yet to make it to the US, but were it available here, it would retail at around $10. Seek it out when in France!
Loupiac AOC – also on the right bank, produces age-worthy and luscious wines from botrytized grapes. The 2016 Château du Cros is from vines with an average age of 65 years, and sees some oak, which frames its flavors of syrupy peaches, apricots, orange marmalade, blossoms and honey with a touch of cedar and vanilla. One of the more ‘expensive’ Sweet Bordeaux wines at about $22, It has an enduring finish and will become even more complex with age.
Cadillac AOC – on the right bank, produces rich, powerful wines. The 2017 Chateau la Rame shows bolder notes of tropical fruit than the above wines, with tinges of sweet spices, orange peel and peach jam – it is a dense and aromatic bargain at about $15.
There are so many sweet wines from Bordeaux to discover and enjoy, even if you can’t find these specific bottles, look for the listed appellations and you will find sweet, balanced bargains that explode with flavor and match beautifully with a wide variety of foods.
If you are still a sweet wine denier, I hope that I am making the tiniest inroads into making you a sweet wine believer. Yes, finding sweet wines that balance flavor, sweetness and acidity takes some knowledge, but if you know where to look, it is possible to affordably experiment your way to Nirvana, especially if you take the right foods along for the ride, which I will discuss in PART FOUR : Great and Unexpected Sweet Wine and Food Pairings. Stay tuned!
*PS: What Exactly Do We Mean When We Say Sweet?
Most dry wines have a residual sugar level below 5 grams per liter, but once you go beyond that you are moving into off-dry territory – even though many wines in the US that represent as dry (I am looking at you California Chardonnay) can have well over 5 g/l of sugar. High acid wines can actually mask sweetness and this is reflected in European regulations on wine sweetness levels which take into account acidity levels (see chart below).
Increasingly (although not enough) winemakers are printing a sweetness chart on their wine labels. Not, however, in Germany, where some dry wines will be marked Trocken (which means dry) and some off-dry wines as Halbtrocken or Feinherb, but wines labelled Kabinett, Spatlese or Auslese will have no indication of their sweetness level, even though they can be dry to medium sweet. Wines labelled Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese are always sweet – the dry, or 'trocken', in Trockenbeerenauslese refers to dried or shriveled berries from botrytis not to the wine being dry – confused yet? Encouragingly, as of 2021, Alsace wines must indicate their sweetness levels on the label, which is a positive step forward in helping consumers know, rather than guess, exactly what level of sweetness is in that bottle.