Part 1 covered the basics of how sweet wine in made in the winery. This post will cover a bit about the role the vineyard plays as well some tips on when and how to enjoy sweet wines.
If a wine maker is going to make sweet wines by relying on the sugar in the must, they are going to have to either start with grapes that have high sugar content or add sugar. As the later approach is somewhat frowned on in the wine world, we are going to cover the former. Naturally high sugar musts are a product of the vineyard more than the winery. If conditions are right, grapes can ripen and be harvested with enough sugar. If not, or if a very sweet natural wine is desired, the vineyard has to increase the sugar content in the before the wines are pressed at the winery.
Grape juice is mostly water if you remove some water from the grapes you get a higher concentration of sugar. There are three basic methods of doing this. Two are done on the vine and one can be but usually isn’t.
The simplest method is to dry the grapes, in essence make raisins. This is usually done after the grapes have been picked. One of my favorite sweet wines, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito is made this way. Just a note, this method can be used to make not just sweet wines but also high alcohol dry wines such as Amarone. Less commonly, the grapes can be left on the vine to dry.
Perhaps the best known method for concentrating sugar in the vineyard is the use of the mold Botrytis Cinerea, also known as “Noble Rot”. It works better than it sounds. Under the right conditions the mold forms on the grapes and removes water, concentrating the sugar and changing the flavor of the juice. There are difficulties with this method in that the mold only occurs in the right conditions. It also does not affect all the vines in a vineyard the same way or at the same time. In some cases it doesn’t even affect all the grapes in a bunch at the same time. Thus to get the full benefit of noble rot the grape pickers have to go through the vineyard many times which is expensive. Sauternes are the best known wines that made from grapes subject to noble rot.
Ice-wines are the result of the final method. In colder climates the grapes are left on the vines until they freeze. The freezing removes some water without many other changes. This can result in very fresh tasting wines.
The fashion for sweet wines has been dormant for quite a while. They are starting to get more notice but many people are not familiar with them. Here is a short list of how I like to enjoy them.
Before Dinner: I don’t usually like sweet drinks before a meal but I do like to have a glass of Moscato d’ Asti. Moscato d’ Asti is on the less sweet end of the sweet wine spectrum. It has good acidity to counter the sweetness and the slight fizz also helps keep it from being cloying.
Appetizers and Main Courses: Sweet wines are rarely recommended with appetizers or main courses but there are exceptions. Dishes that are very high in fat can benefit from a sweet wine, as can dishes in which fruit flavors dominate. It can be hard for a dry white wine to stand up to the richness or the fruitiness and the tannins in a red can clash. The secret is to pick a sweet wine with high acidity so it doesn’t become cloying. A classic combination is foie gras with Sauternes.
Deserts: This is where most people think about having sweet wines. I don’t normally go for the combination of a sweet and a sweet wine. I find it can get cloying. I do like Asti with some fruit desserts. Another exception, provided they are not too sweet, is cookies, which go well with sweet wines. Biscotti and Vin Santo is a classic combination. I also would like to give a shout-out to Sandcastles from Black and Blanco. I had them with an off-dry Prosecco and thought they would be great with sweet wines. One more thing on desserts, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito is the only wine I know that can stand up to chocolate.
Cheese: This is a place where sweet wines can really shine. Blue cheeses can be very hard to match with a dry wine but can be great with a sweet one. Port and Stilton is a classic combination. A glass of Sauternes or Muscat Beaumes de Venise with a Vacherin du Mont D’ Or is fantastic. Cheddar with port or a good ice wine is nice too.
After Dinner: I most often enjoy sweet wines on their own after dinner, instead of desert. Here you can go to town as there are no competing flavors to match them with. If it has been a big meal with a fair amount of wine, I like to finish, as I suggested starting, with Moscato d’ Asti. It can refresh the palate. It doesn’t hurt that it is low in alcohol, usually under 6%. Enjoy.