Wines for a Sweet Tooth

Donald Dibbern

As the old saying goes, life is uncertain: Eat dessert first. It makes sense to start in the only logical place ... with dessert.

Dessert wines, in fact, served as my own personal introduction to the appreciation of fine wine. When I first sought to try a wine better than the grocery store jug or box wine that represents many people's initial wine experience, I went to a wine shop to ask for advice. The clerk at the bottle shop, as they are known in Nebraska, asked the question that strikes fear into the heart of every total wine novice: "What kind of wine are you looking for?"

The only wines with which one is familiar are obviously and embarrassingly absent from a store of this quality, so naming a brand is clearly out. A reply such as "white" or "red" is straightforward enough, I suppose, although handily erasing any pretense of knowledge or sophistication whatsoever in everyone's mind. There is always the tactic of giving the clerk a price range, although this appears to present dual disadvantages. On the one hand, it commits one to spending more than might otherwise be preferred, and on the other hand, possibly seeming too cheap or crass.

Thus comes the almost inevitable response given in such a situation, "something dry." Well, for whatever reason, this clerk (I assume it was not the owner, since I imagine the owner might have wanted to sell me more wine in the future) took me at my literal word. He pointed me towards the most bone-dry, fruitless, blisteringly acidic white in the store, and I was pleased at how reasonable was the price of this "fine wine." His parting advice was particularly apropos as well, "Serve well-chilled."

Drinking this wine - a Muscadet if memory serves - was really quite an experience. Each swig hit my palate a bit like a belt sander, followed by a mid-palate of wet cat, and a finish reminiscent of concertina wire. The nose, had I even known to swirl or sniff this substance beforehand, was of a strong note of dusty tapwater. This wine had even less fruit than the semi-sweet Liebfraumilch that we had typically had at the holidays, which even then I knew was industrial-style plonk. For many years afterwards, I assumed that, like opera music, fine wine was an acquired taste and for individuals with greater intelligence and persistence than my own.

Over the following years, apart from the occasional bottle of Champagne (which I found a pleasant, albeit hardly affordable, indulgence), I rarely drank any wine at all. I sometimes idly wondered why so many people seemed to actually enjoy wine.

It was on vacation in Napa when things suddenly changed. I doubt many visitors to Napa leave without tasting some wine, but I happened to mention to the helpful winery staff that I didn't really care for wine very much. "Oh, then why don't you try this," they offered, "it's a dessert wine."

I was first struck by the color of the wine, a deep and rich orange, like an autumn sunset or a harvest moon. Both the color and the obvious viscosity of the wine as it moved in the glass were unlike any other wine I had ever seen. It turned out to be a rather fine late-harvest Muscat Canelli, quite sweet but excellently balanced by its lively acidity. It was also served cool, but not ice-cold, allowing it to reveal the fullness and complexity of its flavors, as well as its fragrant perfume. And it tasted like fruit, grapes even! I had no idea that wine could actually taste good, or that good wine could actually taste sweet.

Thus it is with special pleasure that I present this sweet wine primer. I find it useful to think of this huge and diverse category of wines in broad terms as being composed of three major categories. No, not "the good, the bad, and the ugly," but "light," "heavy," and "fortified."


For those who enjoy fine dry wines and seek to broaden their wine tasting experience with a foray into sweet wine territory, starting to sample among the lighter wines may prove pleasant. Of these three categories, this also benefits from the fact that fine examples are generally less costly than in the others. If I had to choose a single wine to use to dispel a fear of residual sugar, it would have to be Moscato d'Asti. It's light, it's fizzy, it's distinctly sweet but not sugary or syrupy, it's got clean refreshing acidity but is not overly structured, it's ultra-low in alcohol ... just make sure that it's the freshest possible vintage available, and served slightly chilled, and you are good to go. Again, we are dealing with that great perfume of Muscat, and a flavor of wine that actually tastes of the grape.

There are many excellent producers of this popular Italian wine; Elio Perrone is one of my favorites. Perrone's standard release is called Sourgal, and they also have a limited single-vineyard cuvée called Clarté. Lighter sweet wines may also be more versatile in pairings with food, and use during a meal, instead of alone and before or after eating. These wines can be quite pleasant served as an aperitif, or with sweet (but not acidic) fruits, like melons or strawberries or grapes. Although more esoteric, there are red wines, too, that can compete in this category of lighter sweet wines. Brachetto d'Acqui is another Italian specialty that is frizzante (lightly sparkling) and semi-sweet, yet red in color; it tastes of fresh red berries.


For more advanced dessert wine enthusiasts, there is nothing that can compete with the richness, density, and sheer complexity of the heavier sweet wines. There are wines in this category that include some of the most renown, and expensive, wines on planet Earth. Even the names alone evoke some of the majesty and history of these wines, such as Sauternes, Tokaji, and the tongue-twisting Trockenbeerenauslese. The Australians refer to their estimable contributions to this category as "stickies."

To discuss this category, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the actual process of how grapes become wine. As grapes are hanging on the vine, they progressively ripen and increase in sugar content as they mature. They also increase in phenolic (flavor) compounds during this process as well. For a typical still dry wine, grapes are picked near the peak of their ripeness and crushed for their juice. Yeast can then ferment all of this grape sugar content into alcohol, leaving no "residual sugar." For most modern still dry wines, this results in wines of approximately 10-15% alcohol by volume.

But what happens if grapes are used that have too much sugar for the yeast to complete their job? The result is a wine (usually lower in alcohol) that remains sweet, to a degree dependent upon the amount of sugar left over, or residual sugar. Most types of sweet wine are defined historically by their region of origin and traditional method of preparation. However, based on the color of grape, method of concentration, and presence or absence of fortification (adding alcohol stops the fermentation early, before all of the sugar is converted), a matrix of sorts may provide a practical method for systematic consideration of the major types of dessert wines.

Although we will leave the fortified sweet wines, such as Banyuls, Port, Madeira, and Sherry to a future column, we will discuss examples of red and white dessert wines that use several different methods to achieve the super-concentrated grapes needed to produce these luscious elixirs. The first, and perhaps simplest, is to simply leave the grapes on the vine to over-ripen. This accounts for the late-harvest dessert wines, such as the gloriously rich auslese ("selected harvest") wines of Germany and vendange tardive ("late harvest") wines of Alsace. It is worthwhile knowing the term degrees Brix (and related terms Baumé, used in France, and Oechsle, used in Germany). These are measurements of the amount of substances dissolved in the grape juice, or density of the must, most of which represents grape sugars.

At the risk of arithmetic causing readers' eyes to glaze over, and allowing for some gross oversimplification of complex changes in solutions at extremes in variation of temperature and concentration, the following estimates will (usually) get you close, and are pretty easy to remember: One degree Brix is (almost) one percent sugar (or, by weight, 10 grams per liter) which is (a bit more than) ½ degree Baumé (and thus about 0.5% potential alcohol, if fermented to dryness). The reason for knowing this, short of being a winemaker, Master of Wine candidate, or game-show contestant, is that some dessert wines helpfully provide Brix at harvest and residual sugar information on their label. This then allows you some sense of the density and sweetness of the wine before tasting.

Just to provide an example of these concepts, grapes for a typical dry wine might be picked at 22º Brix (11+º Baumé), resulting in wine a little over 11% alcohol by volume (actually, the fudge factors involved would probably result in a wine around 12-12.5%, but you get the general idea). Thus, a dessert wine picked at 38º Brix (19+% potential alcohol, although all of those hard-working yeasties would have long since died before reaching this point) might ferment to 10% alcohol (10º Baumé, or 20º Brix), leaving 18º Brix, or over 180 g/L sugar. What does this mean? It means this will be a quite thick, dense, and sweet wine.

For comparison, it is instructive to consider an experiment discussed by Emile Peynaud in his classic, The Taste of Wine, where he reports that most professional French wine tasters described a wine as dry (sec) below 4 grams sugar per liter, while most professional German wine tasters described wines as dry (trocken) below 12 grams per liter. Thus, late-harvest style wines will generally have overtly sweet flavors, hopefully balanced by enough acidity to keep the palate from being overwhelmed by the sugar, and often with remarkable complexity. The layered flavors can range from candied or jellied fruits and pastes, through a range of butters and sweets (such as caramel, butterscotch, and honey), to even inorganic notes of mineral or earth (slate or petrol, for example).

In wine-producing countries with a cold climate, like Germany and Canada, the most extreme form of late-harvest wines may be ice wine. In this especially rare and expensive form of dessert wine, the grapes are left on the vine well past the usual fall harvest, until after the first very hard freeze. The grapes are then pressed while frozen for their tiny remaining drops of juice, ultra-concentrated by the effective removal of water in this manner. Wines of this style are often distinguished by their clean and crisp fruit flavors, quite sweet yet usually balanced by equally impressive palate-refreshing acidity. German and Austrian eiswein is traditionally made with white grape varieties-the best are invariably Riesling, but some fine eiswein is also made from Scheurebe and others. While traveling recently in Canada, I had opportunity to sample ice wines from red varieties, where even Cabernet Franc and Merlot are used for these esoteric and delicious specialty wines.

How else might grapes be concentrated, besides freezing them? Well, by drying them into raisins, of course. Just lay out your grapes on straw mats ("straw wine" translates into vin de paille, or strohwein) to dry before pressing and, again, less water equals more sugar, which results in super-rich, complex, sweet dessert wine. This most ancient of all dessert wine techniques was used for wines enjoyed by Homer and Hesiod in ancient Greece, as well as Pliny and Virgil in ancient Rome, according to Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine.

Although use of this technique was historically relatively widespread, it is now little used outside of Italy for their recioto and vin santo dessert wines. Amarone, is certainly now the best-known wine made from dried grapes, but is fermented to dryness. Recioto, however, is a closely related sweet wine from the same Valpolicella grape varieties (Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara) and made in the same Veneto region of Italy (near Venice). Not surprisingly, it often tastes like a "sweet Amarone," with a similar range of aromas and flavors. Vin santo is a historic Tuscan dessert wine made from dried white grape varieties. Rather limited amounts of these two types of dessert wines are exported here, although they can usually be found in shops that specialize in the wines of Italy.

Finally, we reach the final and most interesting process for making some of the most exalted beverages on the planet ... making wine from moldy rotten grapes! Seriously, grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea (the "noble rot") look horrific. You know what table grapes look like, and white wine-grapes look much the same when harvested for ordinary wines.

Now, imagine finding bunches of shriveled ashy grey-brown raisins covered with a disgusting furry fungus. Well, people are people, and apparently long ago someone squeezed the juice out of a rotten batch of grapes and let it ferment to wine. To their most assured surprise, it was discovered that this incredible nectar tasted like no other wine they may have ever before experienced. As it turns out, this unique effect is limited to just this particular fungus, and only under certain conditions at that. These conditions primarily occur in France (for Sauternes and other sweet wines of Bordeaux, certain wines of the Loire valley, as well as the Sélection de Grains Nobles of Alsace), Germany (some Auslesen, and all Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen), and Hungary (my personal favorite, Tokaji Aszú).

The fascinating effect of this fungal infection on the juice of these grapes results in a diverse variety of chemical changes, beneficially affecting both the flavor and longevity of these wines. Although many different grape varieties can be affected by noble rot, it is interesting that botrytised wines tend to have their particular varietal flavor palate largely replaced, or perhaps masked, by the effect of this mold. This can make it difficult to distinguish between even such otherwise distinctive varieties as, say, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. When botrytis infects red grape varieties, however, it usually results in unpleasant flavors.

If you have not yet had the opportunity to try a botrytised white dessert wine, you may wonder about what flavors could cause all this attention and effort, to the point that many producers go through their vineyards multiple times to hand-gather even single affected berries out of the rest of the bunch. I find it a rather difficult flavor to describe, though it is instantly recognizable once experienced. Some tasters have called it "honeyed," although it is altogether earthier and funkier than that. Spoiled honey or over-ripe cantaloupe, perhaps, though that hardly sounds appealing. This is one of those liminal scents or flavors that words alone cannot do proper justice, akin to the musky fragrance of fresh truffles, although with a sweeter tone. There is also a distinct richness, or umami, like the savoriness of mushrooms or dry-aged beef, although of course of entirely different flavor.

For true wine lovers and those adventurous souls unafraid of trying something with a sweetness and consistency closer to maple syrup than what they have previously known as wine, may they be surprised and rewarded by the intensity and complexity of these magnificent drinks.

© copyright 2007 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

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