Sweet wines used to be the most sought after and expensive wines in the world. The framers of the Declaration of Independence toasted their success with Madeira. [According to one report, 54 bottles of Madeira and 22 bottles of Port were consumed in the celebration.] The Habsburgs favored Ruster Ausbruch from Austria’s Lake Neusiedl region. And Napoleon had a preference for South Africa’s Vin de Constance. Even Champagne was typically drunk sweet until well into the 20th century.
Of course, everything has its day, and sweet wines today are not fashionable, excepting something like the ultra-expensive Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem. This means that consumers who like dessert wines can purchase some of the most special wines in the world at bargain prices.
That’s not to say that sweet wines are cheap. They aren’t. They usually come from vineyards with extremely low yields, and the grapes are almost always hand-picked. The need to select only the very ripest grapes sometimes requires that a given vineyard parcel be picked several times over.
Unfortunately, sweet wines are so seldom drunk these days that most consumers don’t know how to drink them. Contrary to popular opinion, they seldom go well with very sweet desserts. Rather, they are at their best when drunk with savory foods like liver pate, a variety of cheeses, and lightly sweet desserts like shortbread cookies, biscotti, and fruit tarts. And they go equally well at the beginning of a meal as they do at the end.
Types of Sweet Wine. All sweet wine has a fair amount of residual sugar, but that’s about all they have in common. They’re made in many different ways from a large number of varietals. The most important distinction is between wines that are fortified (e.g., Madeira, Port, Banyuls) and those that are not (e.g., Icewine, Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes). The former are made by adding alcohol to the wine, which stops the fermentation, leaving the wine sweet and higher in alcohol than table wines. The fermentation of unfortified wines is also stopped, often by chilling the wine, before all the sugar can be converted to alcohol, leaving a sweet wine that is lower in alcohol than table wines. Sometimes the sugar content of the grapes is so high that fermentation stops of its own accord.
Sweet wines also differ in the way they are produced to concentrate the juice and sugar. Grapes are sometimes frozen (icewine), or dried on the vine (passerillé) or on mats (straw wine), or affected by noble rot (botrytis), or purposely exposed to air (rancio) so the wine takes on the nutty characteristics of sherry. One wine—Hungary’s Tokaji—is made by adding a sweet grape paste to a dry base wine.
Our Recommendations. If you haven’t tried a sweet wine recently, we strongly recommend you do so. And please don’t leave sweet wine just for the end of the meal when taste buds are already sated. A well-chilled Moscato from any of several countries or a Canadian Riesling Icewine is perfect as an aperitif. Pictured here is the exotic Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine. Try French Sauternes with liver pate or a Vouvray Moelleux with goat cheese souffle for a starter. If you want to wait until dessert, try Tuscan Vin Santo with biscotti cookies or an Austrian or German Beerenauslese with a double-cream cheese or a fresh fruit tart. Another traditional after-dinner pairing is Vintage Port or Banyuls with a strong, blue cheese or a flourless chocolate cake. Finally, there are some dessert wines that are so viscous and sweet that they need to be drunk by themselves in lieu of dessert. These include the intensely sweet and densely flavored Austrian or German Trockenbeerenauslese or a Tokaji of five or more puttonyos (a measure of the wine’s sweetness).
There are many, many other unique sweet and dessert wines that can be found at your neighborhood wine store. Be adventurous and try something different, including one of the excellent sweet wines made in Virginia or New York. The International Wine Review will be issuing a special report on Sweet and Dessert Wines later this year.