Updated: Aug 23, 2022
PART TWO: A Tale of Beauty and the Beast - How Sweet Wine Gets Sweet
Now that we have cast aside some sweet wine myths (I hope), let's talk about how a wine goes from dry to sweet...
It is a tale as old as time.....
Forget about those pretty, ripe, smooth-skinned, plumped-up grapes bursting with juice, and think about shriveled, gnarled and beastly-looking grapes hiding a mysterious and inner beauty....a beauty that can age and grow deeper for decades.
But first, to understand how wines get sweet, let's quickly review how wine is made: yeast is added to grape juice which then feeds ravenously, like a mad PacMan on the grape sugars, turning them into alcohol (and CO2), until there is no sugar left to eat: the end result is a dry wine. The journey for a sweet wine is not so straightforward and has three distinct routes:
1. Yeastus Interruptus: Kill or Remove the Yeast
If the winemaker kills, or removes, the yeast before it has finished eating all the sugars, a sweet wine is produced. This is usually done by either filtering out the yeast - the method used for White Zinfandel and Moscato d'Asti - or by adding alcohol/distilled spirit which kills the yeast (yeast usually dies at about 15.5% ABV). Adding alcohol is the method used for sweet fortified wines as varied as Port, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, France's Vin Doux Naturels and Madeira.
2. One Lump or Two? Add Sweetness
If the winemaker adds unfermented grape must/juice to a dry wine, it will make it sweet – like adding sugar to your coffee. This technique is used in some quality German Rieslings where the very cool climate in its northernmost vineyards can mean grapes can struggle to ripeness. It is also used for Pale, Medium and Cream Sherries in Jerez in Spain, where either concentrated grape juice or naturally sweet sherry made from Pedro Ximenz grapes is blended with dry sherry to create sweetness. Adding sugar is also a technique used for Champagne and some sparkling wines, post fermentation, in a carefully calibrated ‘dosage,’ to balance and adjust sweetness levels.
But, for the most part, wines that become sweet with the addition of grape syrup/sugar post fermentation, tend to be cheap mass market wines (like 70s Blue Nun) and at the heart of why people hate them.
Because if you pile sweetness on top of mediocrity, what you have is cotton candy. Cheap and sweet.
3. Au Naturel: Naturally from the Grape
If the sugar levels in the grapes are extraordinarily high, the yeast gets a sugar high and cannot finish consuming the sugar, so a sweet wine results. Generally speaking (and there are big exceptions with fortified wines, but...) the best sweet wines become sweet right in the vineyard when the sugars and flavors are concentrated as moisture evaporates. How does that happen?
Desiccation: the grapes are left to hang longer and later into the season (hence the term 'Late Harvest'), and sugars accumulate as the grapes become dehydrated. Or, they are dried (often on straw mats or by hanging in a drying room) after picking, a technique known in Italy as aspassimento (which means passionate... of course!). This is used for both red and white wines.
Freezing: grapes in very cold climates are left on the vine to freeze and are picked and pressed while still frozen, so only the very concentrated liquid nectar becomes wine, leaving the ice crystals behind. This is mainly used for white wines, but, in some cases, for red. The process of harvesting frozen grapes is intricate and labor intensive, and under freezing conditions, so you can be sure the quality is high and matched by the price. The aroma/flavor notes are especially pure and varietally-focused and the wines are known as Ice Wines or, in Germany, Eiswein.
Fungus! or Noble Rot: Botrytis Cinerea is a fungus that infects grapes, puncturing the skins with microscopic filaments, creating tiny holes so the water in the grapes evaporates. This concentrates flavors and sugars, but only under very particular terroir conditions, and not on every vintage. Noble Rot requires ripe grapes, morning mists and long, warm dry afternoons (otherwise the rot becomes the less-than-noble gray mold!).
Noble Rot causes changes that create flavors/aromas such as ginger, honey, beeswax and marmalade. Botrytized grapes, just like the beast in beauty and the beast, are as ugly as sin, but a thing of beauty under that brown shriveled shell.
It is important to note that naturally sweet wines are usually made from grapes that are high acid – Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sémillon, Furmint, Vidal Blanc – so there is plenty of acid to balance out the sweetness of that nectar.
The flavor impact of these three 'natural sweetness' methods is why the resulting wines are among the world’s greatest. As the water evaporates, the true gorgeous essence of the grape concentrates, so the profile of these wines is balanced and profoundly intense with floral, stone fruit, dried fruit notes. And of these three, wines made from Noble Rot are probably the greatest of all.
The Sweet OG - Sauternes
The world's most famous sweet wine, Bordeaux's Sauternes, is a noble rot wine. Bordeaux, which means, roughly, 'water by the riverbank,' is defined by rivers and the Sauternes region is situated on the left bank of the Garonne River in the Graves region on a tributary called the Ciron, which offers perfect conditions for noble rot. The principal grape is the very age-worthy Sémillon, which is not only susceptible to noble rot, but also high acid, and often blended with the aromatic, high-acid Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes Muscadelle. It is worth noting that these grapes are also blended together for the famous dry whites of Bordeaux.
Sauternes is a luscious wine, with dried fruit, peaches, apricots, honey, ginger, marmalade, nuts, some sweet spice from oak and waves of flavor on the finish, growing in complexity as it ages. An extended (hand) harvest that involves multiple passes through the vineyard, as well as careful vinification, and aging in small new oak barrels - plus the fact that not every vintage has the conditions for noble rot - is why these wines command top dollars. The most famous Sauternes is Chateau d'Yquem, vintage versions of which go for thousands of dollars.
Don't have thousands of dollars? You can find less expensive versions (under $100) that will still offer glory on the nose and yes, a piece of heaven on the palate: for example, a full bottle of 2019 Chateau Sigalas Rabaud Sauternes is $43.99. And if you want to just dip your toe in the sweet water, many come in half bottles so, without breaking the bank, you can taste the character aging brings to these wines, as in the $30 2005 Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes (375ML).
Or you could look to Barsac - an appellation that is part of Sauternes, but lesser known - for a very similar experience: for example a full bottle of 2019 Chateau Doisy Daene offers a little bit of nirvana for $38.
And there are other even less expensive options in Bordeaux which I will cover in Part Three of From Nun to Nirvana.
The Other OG: Tokaji
Probably the only other noble rot sweet wine that rivals Sauternes for fame, renown and history is the Hungarian wine, Tokaji, known as the wine of kings and the king of wines. In fact, its most famous label is Royal Tokaji. Like Sauternes, Tokaji is made from botrytized grapes, or Aszú ('dried up') berries, grown in volcanic soils, overlooking the misty Bodrog and Tisza rivers, in the rain shadow of the Carpathian range which enables long sunny autumn afternoons that dry up those mists - perfect conditions for noble rot.
Tokakji claims to be the first region to produce wine from botrytized grapes (Bordeaux, which boasts that the first late harvest wine was in Sainte Croix du Mont in 1630, may disagree). The Tokaji legend, another of wine's very happy accidents, is that an imminent Turkish invasion back in the 17th Century caused a landowner to postpone harvest. By the time he was able to harvest, the grapes had become botrytized beasts -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tokaji's grape varieties are different from Sauternes, but share similar features: high acid, ageability, susceptibility to noble rot and some aromatics. Furmint (four-mint), is the lead singer, with Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály (aka Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), doing the aromatic back up vocals. As in Sauternes, the grapes are hand-picked in several passes through the vineyards and, traditionally, were collected in containers called puttony. This led to Tokaji's classification system of 3, 4, 5 & 6 puttonyos, i.e. the more puttony full of Aszú berries used to make the wine, the sweeter it will be. However, since 2013 the puttonyos labelling system is no longer part of the official wine law, although winemakers are allowed to use 5 and 6 puttonyos on the labels of wines that have more than 120g/l of sugar.
Traditionally, Tokaji was made by turning the Aszú berries into a paste and then macerating them in an already fermented or fermenting non-botrytized still wine from Furmint, then pressing the wine and aging it in wood. These days the berries are not made into a paste because it can add bitter tannins from the seeds, so they are tossed whole into the wine to macerate before pressing.
Of note, but very rare, is Tokaji Essencia made from the free run juice (literally the juice that drips out on its own from the weight of grapes on top of each other) of the most shriveled Aszú berries. With over 450g/l of sugar, Essencia can take years to ferment, barely getting to 5% abv, and is traditionally consumed with a crystal spoon - and yes, it is very expensive - nearly $1,000 for a half bottle.
Tokaji Aszú wines have a similar aroma and flavor profile to Sauternes, with some key differences - they are more acidic and therefore tend to have more fruitiness and a roasted salty, nutty quality. But, like Sauternes, they are awash in dried fruits, honey, caramel, ginger, orange peel, stone fruits and more -- with a length that is a symphony of complexity. Dipping a toe in the Tokaji sweet water is a little more expensive than Sauternes (but oh so worth it!), with a 500ml bottle of 2016 Royal Tokaji Aszu, 5 puttnyos, costing about $60.
Tokaji and Sauternes are just two, and probably the best known, of this genre of historic and legendary sweet wines made the 'naturally sweet' way, which also includes South Africa's Vin de Constance (late harvest), Germany's Trockenbeerenauslese (noble rot), Italy's wine of the saints, Vin Santo (apassimento) and many more....
Are you enticed yet?
If so (and how could you not be??), how should you get started on sweet wines? They can, after all, be prohibitively expensive. But if you want to dip your toes in the sweet water, in Part 3 of From Nun to Nirvana, I will have some suggestions that will take you a bit off the beaten track of sweet wines, but that will give you a noble experience for a fraction of the cost of the grander versions.
In these often bitter times, what could be better than sweetening the palate?
Stay tuned for PART FOUR : Great and Unexpected Sweet Wine and Food Pairings