In this post, rather than focusing on a particular varietal, we’re taking a look at a somewhat underappreciated area of the wine world: sweet wines.
It’s easy to be dismissive. After all, sweet stuff is for kids and dessert, right? It’s not serious. Well for one, sweet wine is delicious, diverse and fascinating in its own right. And for two… we’re not really that bothered by “serious” at Humble Grape anyway.
To the Factmobile!
So what exactly IS sweet wine?
Good point, let’s establish sound ground rules. A “dry” wine is one where all the sugar has been converted to alcohol before you drink it. A sweet wine is one with sugar left over. How much sugar determines how sweet it’s going to be. For the purpose of this email we’re talking about wines that have not been fortified further (so not sherry, port or madeira, for example).
Surely you can just dump some extra sugar in?
Well, maybe… Normally when winemakers add sugar to fermenting wine they’re hoping to sneakily boost a lacklustre or unripe vintage – they’re hoping all that sugar will be converted into alcohol. This is called Chaptilisation, and it’s prohibited in many wine-making nations. Most places where it’s allowed require winemakers to say on the label.
So how do you make a genuine sweet wine?
Ooh, good question, with lots of fascinating answers. There are two basic ways:
* Grow grapes that have sugar to spare for both sweetness and alcohol. It helps if they get a lot of sun so they’re really ripe, or you could harvest very late – most of the sweet wines we have at Humble Grape are late-harvest wines.
* Remove water to concentrate the sugar. In sunny climates you can dry the grapes out before you begin making wine. In soggy climates you can use a special fungus – see below – and in cold climates you can hope the grapes freeze while they’re ripening to make ice wine.
Ice wine? Fungus? What madness is this?
Ice wine is very cool (sorry). They tend to have great acidity to balance the sweetness, but it’s a risky proposition (letting your crops freeze isn’t normally recommended). Low yields can make it expensive.
Botrytis cinerea or “Noble Rot” is a fungal infection that squeezes water out of the grapes and imparts honey-like flavours. It can contribute to amazing sweet wine, but again, careful management is needed to stop the rot ruining the crop.
So what’s the best way to drink sweet wine?
Hey, we don’t want to put words in your mouth, but we like it either AS a dessert or accompanying food. The general rule is that the wine should be the sweetest thing involved – so it’s a perfect pair with fruit, pastry etc, but maybe go easy on the chocolate. We also love to pair it with something savoury and rich. Salty blue cheese? Sign us up. Pâté and sweet wine for Saturday lunch? Heaven.