How Sweet It Is

There are sweet wines and then there are really, really sweet wines known as dessert wines. Dessert wines are sweet wines served with or instead of dessert. Dessert wines are typically fragrant, lusciously fruity, intensely sweet but not sugary, nectar-like liquids that explode on your palate. I like dessert wines.

Wine is sweet, or not, because of something called residual sugar. Residual sugar is the amount of sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Fermentation is the process of yeast eating the sugar in the grape juice and converting that sugar to alcohol. For table wine, fermentation is stopped when the alcohol content reaches 12-13%. For most varieties of grapes that means almost all of the sugar in the juice has been consumed, therefore most table wine is not sweet.

There are three ways that I know of to make a dessert wine, use sweet grapes, frozen grapes or rotting grapes. While you’re contemplating wine made from rotting grapes, we’ll talk about making dessert wine from sweet grapes. Some grape varieties, like Muscat, are much sweeter than typical wine grapes. Making dessert wine from a sweet grape is fairly straight forward; allow fermentation to begin, but stop it before too much of the sugar is converted to alcohol. Fermentation is stopped by adding extra alcohol, usually distilled grape alcohol, to the juice; this kills the yeast and stops fermentation. What you end up with is a sweet, high alcohol wine like the Muscat below.

Still thinking about rotting grapes? We’ll get to those, but let’s talk frozen grapes. In cold climates, grapes can be left on the vine beyond traditional harvest times until the temperature falls below 19ยบ. At that temperature, much of the water freezes out of the grapes, leaving the sugar and other solids behind. Pressing the grapes while they are frozen produces a very concentrated juice. Because this juice is so sweet, when fermentation is stopped at 12-13% alcohol, there is still a great deal of (residual) sugar left in the wine. The result are very sweet wines called ice wines. The most famous ice wines are the German Eiswein, but ice wines are also made in Canada, the United States, Australia, France and other countries with sufficiently cold weather.

Now for the rotting grapes. You may have heard of Sauternes, among the most well known dessert wines in the world. It is made from rotting grapes; specifically grapes infested with a fungus called botrytis cinerea. The French euphemistically call this fungus “noble rot”. The fungus sucks the water out of the grapes and leaves behind the concentrated sugar. It also introduces flavors of apricots and honey to the grapes. Besides Sauternes, noble rot is also responsible for the German Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) wine classifications as well as dessert wines from many other countries. Do not confuse Sauternes with Sauterne. Sauterne (without the final “s”) is an intentional misspelling of the French Sauternes. Sauterne is typically a low-quality wine, completely unlike Sauternes.

It takes time for the botrytis cinerea to do its thing, so like ice wines, noble-rot wines are usually harvested late in the season. It is for this reason that you will often hear sweet wines referred to as late-harvest wines. The first noble rot and ice wines were probably created by accident. A harvest is delayed, mold forms on the grapes or the grapes freeze, the grapes are used anyway and viola, they found themselves with a delicious sweet wine. The yield from frozen and noble-rot grapes is small, so this type of wine is relative expensive and usually, but not always, comes in small bottles.

A dessert wine can be dessert in itself, so don’t hesitate to serve dessert wine alone as dessert. If you want to pair a dessert wine with a dessert, bakery sweets, like almond biscuits make a good match, as do poached pairs, sweet melons like honeydew, fruits such as apples, cherries, peaches, etc. or tarts made from these fruits. Be certain that the wine is sweeter than the food, otherwise the wine will taste bitter. Beyond dessert, sweet wines also pair well with some high-fat, savory dishes, like sauted foie gras that is traditional paired with Sauternes. I sometimes enjoy a dessert wine as an aperitif, but not everyone would. Dessert wines are served chilled, in small quantities (usually two ounces or less) in an aperitif-style glass.

Cellar Notes

As mentioned, dessert wines are typically more expensive than table wines. Therefore, the wines below are a bit more expensive than usually seen here. While two of the three wines below are available locally, these are hardly representative of the many wonderful dessert wines that are available. This may be the excuse you’ve been looking for to make a pilgrimage to Spec’s downtown warehouse store.

Vidal Ice Wine – Proprietors Reserve
Niagara Peninsula
HEB or Spec’s $15 – $20 (187 ml bottle)

Sauternes – Dessert Wine
Chateau Bastor Lamontagne
Bordeaux/Sauternes France
Spec’s Warehouse $20 – $25 (375 ml bottle)

Muscat – Dessert Wine
Vidal Fleury
Beaumes de Venise France
Spec’s $10-$15 (187 ml bottle)