Sweet wine gets it sweetness from the residual sugars of the grape or sugars are added during the fermentation process in order to fortify the wines. Grapes inherently have high levels of sugars, depending on the varietal. While wine production dates back over 6000 years, sweet wine production dates back to the 17th Century in Europe.
Substantial volumes of wine drinkers become introduced to wine via sweeter varietals, as they are more approachable and often lower in alcohol (with exception of port). The stigma of sweeter wines being unsophisticated and cheap is widely challenged by wine lovers and connoisseurs. Sweeter wines in some ways have a higher level of appreciation by those who follow and consume them with some regularity.
What Makes Wine Sweet?
Sweet wines are made in a multitude of ways. In a simplified manner, they become sweet by…
- Having enough sugar concentration in the grape to allow for fermentation to stop, leaving residual sugars that enable the wines to have sweetness.
- Adding sugar to the wines before fermentation, called Chaptalization. This process is either done using sugar or honey
- Adding sugar to the wines after fermentation, called Süssreserve, which is a German process of adding unfermented grape juice to the wine in order to display the natural sugars from the grape. The benefit to this style is that it is typically lower in sulfites as the sulfites are used to stop fermentation.
- Raisin grapes are used in the process where the grapes are sundried, depleting the grape of water resulting in a very high sugar content.
- Icewine are harvested under grueling conditions, typically in the dead of winter at the coldest part of the night. Frozen grapes are harvested and the water is separated from the grapes.
- Some of the most prized, expensive dessert wines rely on a moldy condition known as noble rot, Botrytis Cinerea, to infect the grape skins, resulting in a honey, apricot/peach flavor profile with minerality that has a long finish. This condition only occurs in a mildly damp environment and can easily become disastrous if its not monitored closely during harvest.
Popular Sweet Wine Varietals
The most popular sweet wine varietals are Riesling, Vouvray, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Sauternes and Icewine. For a complete list of key sweet wine varietals check out the Popular Sweet Wine Varietals Page.
Drinking Sweet Wine
Because anything sweet can quickly become overwhelming to the digestive tract, sweeter wines are typically consumed on a full stomach or in conjunction with richer foods, whether sweet or hearty). They are typically consumed in smaller glasses as often the bottle sizes are 500ml or smaller and require sharing with other individuals. It’s not uncommon to use a sifter (cognac) style glass to enjoy a sweet wine or even a champagne flute.
Sweet Wine Facts
- 1947 Vouvray by S.A. Huet and the 1921 Chateau d’Yquem were ranked by Decanter Magazine in 2005 in the article “100 Greatest Wines ever”
- Tojaki Essencia can age for over 200 years, making it the most cellar worthy wine
- Tokaji was the “Wine of Kings” as was dubbed by Louis XV when presented a bottle by the King of Transylvania
- English tradition requires port to be served at formal dinners and must be passed to the left with the bottle never to touching the table
- The most expensive bottle ever sold in the world was a 1811 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, which sold in 2011 for $116,000
- For more wine facts, checkout the Wine Facts page