The Complete Guide to Sweet Wines
What makes wine such an enjoyable drink? It’s more than just the alcohol (!), it’s the wide variety of wine available around the world. No two bottles taste alike, and every glass of wine is a completely new experience. How many other foods or drinks can say the same thing?
There’s a type of wine for everyone! Don’t like the rich, deep red wines? Try a crisp, tart white! Not a fan of sparkling wine or Champagne? Try softer, fruity rosé wines. Want something to enjoy after – or even before – your meal? Try sweet wines!
Though sweet wines can be enjoyed at various times they are an ideal choice to accompany or replace (!) dessert. Their higher sugar content makes them the perfect post-meal drink, as they can stimulate digestion and shut down your appetite. The right sweet wine types will help you finish your meal in style.
In this article, you’ll learn about the different types of popular sweet wines to serve both with and after your meals. By the time you reach the end, you’ll know everything you need to in order to find the best sweet wine!
Why So Sweet?
All wine contains sugar, but the amount of sugar differs according to the type of grape used, the vineyard location and the wine-making process.
Grapes contain natural sugar, also known as fructose and glucose. When the grapes are turned into wine, yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol (ethanol). If the yeast is allowed to consume all the sugar, the wine becomes dry and the alcohol content increases. The less sugar the yeast consumes, the sweeter the wine and the lower the alcohol content.
A wine classified as “sweet” has anywhere from 2 to 7.2 grams of sugar per 100 ml. A “very sweet” wine has 7.2 to 13 grams of sugar per 100 ml. Compare that to a can of Coca Cola (which has 10.8 grams of sugar per 100 ml), and you can see why sweet wines deserve the name.
Wine is all about balance, and it’s important to remember that sugar content is only half the story when it comes to our perception of sweetness. The amount of acidity has a huge effect on whether a sweet wine tastes appetising and refreshing or cloying and sickly sweet.
Which Wines are sweet?
Now that you know how much sugar a wine must have to be officially recognised as sweet, the question becomes in what styles and colours sweet wines come?
White… yes, of course. Red too? Indeed; think of the fortified wines of Port and Banyuls for starters. Vin Santo can be made from the red sangiovese grape and Recioto della Valpolicella is stupendous sweet red wine made from the same grapes that you find in Amarone wines.
Makers of Champagne and sparkling wines are also in on the act… The Italians do it really well with Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti leading the way.
What is a sweet red wine?
The most famous sweet red wine is Port. Port is a fortified wine made in the Douro Valley in Portugal.
As is so often the way with wine, if you delve back to the beginning, it all started with a monk… The story goes that in the 1600s, two wine merchants were in the Douro valley and met the Abbot of a Lamego monastery where grape spirit was being added to the wine at the early stages of fermentation to preserve the drink’s natural sweetness.
The merchants decided this fortification technique was an excellent way to preserve the wines that they were shipping back to England from the Portuguese city of Porto. And so the world’s most famous sweet red wine was born.
Today the technique is much the same as the Abbot’s but the range of port styles has increased dramatically. There are two distinct categories and we will begin with Ruby Port.
Ruby Port is typically aged in large barrels to prevent the wine from oxidising and to help retain the deep, rich colour of the wine. Although a broad generalisation Ruby Ports are typically rich and fruit-forward. The wines are aged for no more than three years in wood. LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) are a type of Ruby Port and can stay longer in wood before bottling. A Vintage Port can only be made in outstanding years. Contrary to what many think, the wines are only aged in wood for two years before being bottled.
Tawny Ports are aged in much smaller oak vessels and for a much longer period of time than for Ruby Ports. These can be 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years old. Their flavour profile is much nuttier and spicier.
Which of the styles is the best sweet red wine? Only you can decide which you prefer … though as a broad rule of thumb, the Tawny Ports are a lovely accompaniment to food, whereas the Ruby Ports can be enjoyed very sumptuously on their own.
What is a sweet white wine?
Name us a country and we can probably find you a sweet white wine being made there… from Germany to Chile, France to Canada, South Africa to Greece, everyone is at it!
We know that a sweet wine is one that has got sugar remaining once the fermentation process is complete. How does that happen?
The sweetness can be created before fermentation even starts. If you have heard of Sauternes or Ice wine and, with luck, had the chance to taste them, then you’ve experienced a wine that was sweet before fermentation began.
In the cause of Sauternes, the grapes (sémillon and sauvignon blanc) are attacked by a rot called, noble rot (doesn’t that make it sound better?!) which causes the water in the grapes to evaporate, leaving more concentrated sugars in the shrivelled grapes. Although it sounds odd, the flavours that these so-called “botrytised grapes” gain are sensational. The wines that are so-made are amongst the most delicious, sought-after and pricy sweet wines in the world.
In Canada, Austria and Germany you will find Ice wines. Cheaper than a stay in an ice hotel but every bit as thrilling and exciting. The grapes are picked when they are, quite literally frozen, having been left on the vine well after the usual picking time. Often harvested in the night in freezing temperatures, the intense juice that is pressed from the fruit is syrupy sweet and makes lovely wines. Sadly with global warming taking hold, this style of wine is becoming increasingly rare.
Sweetness can be added once fermentation is over. Now, let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that a spoonful of sugar is added at the end. No, the sweetness is derived from a sweet liquid such as unfermented grape juice or sweet alcohol. A well-known example of such a wine would be a Pale Cream Sherry.
Is Chardonnay sweet?
Arghh… it’s such a tricky question to answer. We’ve already explained about the sugar levels required in wine for them to be officially recognised as sweet but so often we offer up a sample of any (dry) wine and we hear “ohh… it’s lovely and sweet”.
The confusion? Well, it’s because when grapes are harvested nicely ripe (as they should) and it’s a variety (like chardonnay) that has lots of flavour, the final wine can be filled with ripe fruit flavours … from apricot to pineapple and much in between. The ripeness strikes many people as ‘sweet’, though technically the wine is dry! Keeping up…?!!
Just to add to the confusion, some winemakers might choose to halt fermentation just before every last sugar has been gobbled up in the process. They do this because a little touch of sweetness can be hugely appealing to the wine drinker.
Although they will be out there, sweet chardonnay wines, in the correct sense of the word sweet are rare. We like our chardonnay wines to be dry, a touch off-dry … and perhaps with just a smidgeon of sweetness!
Most famous grape varieties for the best white sweet wines are muscat, sémillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling and gewürztraminer.
What is a good sweet wine to drink?
Vintage Roots Picks
Vintage Roots have a heavenly selection of organically-certified sweet wines from all over the world. Here is a selection of some of our favourites:
A sweetly-sparkling gem from Italy: Torelli Moscato d’Asti
I’ve yet to come across anyone who hasn’t been won over by this charming wine. Soft bubbles, wonderfully aromatic and filled with grapey sweetness, it’s the ultimate aperitif and a treat with polenta cake or fresh-roasted figs.
Perhaps the best-value sweet wine on the Vintage Roots list. Stellar Heaven on Earth Sweet Muscat has been accompanying customers’ cheese boards with great success for years! Wonderfully luscious it comes in at only 11.5% abv.
Château Dudon’s Sauternes is a masterpiece. Honeyed with marmalade fruit, toasted almonds, sweet spice, candied lemon and poached fruits… Richly-flavoured and yet refreshing too. A little bit of luxury.
The Italians do give the French a run for their money when it comes to sweet wines. We’ve got two to recommend. The first is the sweet verdicchio from Pievalta – Curina – which tastes as good as it looks… slice of almond tart anyone? The second is the much-loved Recioto di Soave from Fasoli Gino which has been favourably compared to the top wines of Sauternes … the apricot label might give you clue as to the taste!
If you’re not totally sold on going completely sweet, we do have a wine to break you in gently! Noisette from Domaine de Pajot is what we call ‘medium sweet’ and is made from late-harvested grapes that have increased sugar levels. We were once told to try it with comte cheese and so we did… Absolutely delicious!
Last but not least, here is a link to the Vintage Roots selection of organic Port wines. It’s plain mean to make us pick just one because we love them all but for sheer joy per pound, it is hard to beat the Casal Jordoes Finest Reserve which has been a VR favourite for decades! It also comes in both 37.5cl and 75.cl bottles!