If we had one small wish for the new year, it would be that sweet wines make a comeback. In a recent Oeno Files newsletter piece on Port, we lamented the fact that we’re no longer asked if we want a sweet wine with our dessert in restaurants; we are just offered cappuccino and espresso. This happens even in fine-dining establishments, which have a dedicated selection of by-the-glass sweet wines sharing space with the dessert menu. It’s no wonder that legacy sweet wine regions like Portugal’s Douro Valley (the home of Port) and Hungary’s Tokaj-Hegyalja (birthplace of Tokaj) are producing dry wines alongside their luscious, sweet offerings. Don’t get us wrong, we love a good dry Douro red or Hungarian Furmint, but we would love to see sweet wine regain its standing among wine lovers.
There is an unfortunate misconception among wine drinkers that wine with higher residual sugar (RS) is cheap and not to be taken seriously. Prior to the Prohibition, Americans brought their sweet tooth to the liquor store, and fortified or Port-style wines—what the Australians call “stickies”—reigned supreme. With the destruction of the United States wine industry under the Prohibition and the post-WWII shift toward fine, dry vino from France and Italy in the middle of the 20th century, sweet wine fell out of favor. Although there are bursts here and there of a comeback, usually fueled by sommeliers and wine journalists, we have not seen a sustained movement toward a return to the glory days of sweet wine.
Some of the finest wines in the world are sweet. What sets a well-made option apart is its acidity, which keeps the sugar in check and keeps the wine from feeling overly cloying. Due to their high sugar content and high acidity, sweet wines age beautifully and will last for many years when properly cellared. And while we love these with dessert or even on their own at the end of a meal, we also like the idea of serving them with savory appetizers or main courses. Here are the main styles to look for:
Fortified: Neutral spirits or brandy are added to wine during fermentation, which kills the yeast and maintains a higher level of residual sugar. Fortified wines such as Port, Madeira, and Marsala have a higher sugar content than dry wine as well as a higher alcohol level.
Late Harvest: Grapes are left hanging on the vine for one to two months longer than normal, which dries the grapes and concentrates sugar.
Ice Wine: Grapes are frozen while still on the vine and are often picked as late as December or January. The water in the grapes freezes but the sugar does not, which concentrates the flavor and increases the sweetness level of finished wine.
Passito: This refers to wine made from dried grapes. Sugar is concentrated during the drying process, and the wine made from the dried grapes has increased sugar content and alcohol.
Botrytized: Botrytis cinerea, the gray mold known as Noble Rot, dehydrates the grapes, which increases the proportion of fruit sugars and acids, offering a sweeter, more intensely flavored berry from which to make wine.
While fortified wine can be made anywhere, botrytized wines and ice wine are weather and climate dependent and are produced in a handful of specialized regions. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Italian will recognize the origin of the word “passito,” a style of wine that hails from Italy. Here are our picks for the world’s finest sweet wines.
Sauternes and Barsac
Sauternes and the wholly contained sub-region Barsac, which are situated within Bordeaux, make up about 2 percent of the region’s total area, but winemakers here proudly point out that they earned 27 grand crus in the famous 1855 classification. Foggy mornings and sunny afternoons aid in the growth of Botrytis cinerea, which gives the wine its full mouthfeel and flavors of orange and apricot marmalade, toasted pineapple, and soft hints of baking spices with touches of beeswax and acacia honey.
The three grapes authorized for use are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. For the most part, 80 percent of the grapes used in the finished wines are Semillon, 20 percent are Sauvignon Blanc, and only a very small percentage is Muscadelle, which can be very important for powerful aromas. Look for bottles from Château d’Yquem, Château Rieussec, Château Climens, Château de Fargues, and Château Caillou.
Savory Pairings: Blue cheese, foie gras, fried chicken, grilled pork chops, butternut squash risotto.
Dessert Pairings: Apple pie, peach pie, pear tart, crème brulée.
Made from botrytized Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat Blanc grapes, Tokaji Aszú was called the “The King of wines, the wine of Kings” by Louis XIV. Unaffected grapes are first harvested in September to make the base wine and other grapes stay on the vine to become inoculated with botrytis. These grapes will shrivel, and their sugars will concentrate until the second picking in late October or November. Harvested botrytized grapes are gathered in large baskets known as puttony and added to 136-liter barrels of base wine. The number of baskets of sweet grapes added to the base wine gave the Tokaji Aszú the Puttonyos rating of 5 or 6 Puttonyos, with 6 Puttonyos as the sweetest on the Puttonyos scale.
For a Tokaji Aszú wine to be labeled today as 5 Puttonyos, it must have at least 120 grams per liter of residual sugar. A wine labeled as 6 Puttonyos must have at least 150 grams per liter of residual sugar. An Eszencia wine can be as sweet as 450 grams per liter and is a rare commodity. The flavor profile includes dried apricots, canned pineapple, tropical fruits, and white flowers with velvety mouthfeel and well-balanced acidity. Notable producers include Oremus, Royal Tokaji, Diznoko, Chateau Dereszla, and Patricius.
Savory Pairings: Gorgonzola, Stilton, or Cabrales cheese, foie gras, Peking Duck, Thai curries.
Dessert Pairings: Vanilla or dulce de leche ice cream, crème caramel, tarte tatin.
A style of sweet, fortified wine from the Douro Valley, Port is made with with five main red-grape varieties, but 80 varieties are allowed. Many Ports are “field” blends, with multiple varieties picked and vinified together. Here, the neutral spirit is known as aguardiente. Port is made in two main styles, Ruby and Tawny.
Ruby Ports are deep red to violet in color, with full texture and flavors of blackberry, cassis, black cherry, and notes of licorice, clove, and anise. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports are from a single harvest year and are aged four to six years before bottling. Vintage Ports are made from the best wines from a single exceptional harvest. They are aged in wood for approximately two years prior to bottling and will continue to age in the bottle for many more years. The finest are from single estates called quintas; the label will include the producer’s name, quinta name, and vintage year. Vintage Ports come only from “declared” years, meaning they are not made every year. Recent standout vintages include 2020, 2017, 2016, 2014, and 2011. Excellent producers include Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta de Noval, and Warre’s.
Savory Pairings: Pulled pork sandwiches, barbecued ribs, Stilton, Epoisses.
Dessert Pairings: Brownies, chocolate lava cake, pecan pie.
Taking its name from the amber “tawny” color it picks up from barrel aging, tawny Port also receives a pleasant nutty or oxidative character from many years in wood. The four types of Tawny Port are Tawny, Tawny Reserve, Tawny with an Indication of Age, (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old) and Colheita. Only Colheita is from a single harvest year and must be aged in wood for at least seven years. The other three types may be a blend of different harvest years. Aged Tawnies have remarkable complexity due to the long barrel aging. We’ve also just begun to see 50-year tawny Port on the market. Expect complex flavors of dried fruits, nuts, and caramel balanced by rich acidity. Among our favorites are Graham’s, Kopke, Dow’s, Quinta do Vallado, and Quinta do Crasto.
Savory Pairings: Sauteed chicken with mushrooms, risotto with walnuts and blue cheese, roast suckling pig.
Dessert Pairings: Cheesecake, butter pecan ice cream, chocolate mousse.
This Italian style of winemaking has been used since the Roman Empire. Grapes partially dehydrate on the vine at the end of the season and are further dried on large screens, either in full sunlight or well-ventilated indoor facilities. After drying for a few weeks for up to six months, the grapes are dried and fermented. The two main types you may encounter are Vin Santo and Passito di Pantelleria.
Hailing from Tuscany, Vin Santo means “holy wine” and is made with Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Sangiovese. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant in Florence, Siena, or the Tuscan countryside and were offered sweet wine after dinner, now you know what it was. Vin Santo can feel a little “hot” at first sip, but expect flavors of orange marmalade, honey, almond, hazelnut, and toffee. When shopping for Vin Santo, look for Avignonesi, Capezzana, Marchese Antinori, and Isole e Olena.
Savory Pairings: Chicken with peanut sauce, pasta with walnut sauce.
Dessert Pairings: Biscotti, almond cookies, pignoli cookies.
Passito di Pantelleria
Passito di Pantelleria comes from a small island off Sicily and is made with the Muscat of Alexandria grape, known locally as Zibibbo. Expect exquisite flavors of canned peach, honeycomb, butterscotch, and apricot preserves. The finest bottles of Passito di Pantelleria include Donnafugata Ben Rye, Carole Bouquet, Marco De Bartoli, and Cantine Pellegrino.
Savory Pairings: Chicken marsala, crisp roast pork, pasta with blue cheese.
Dessert Pairings: Fig cookies, apple pie, cheesecake.
Produced in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula as well as Germany and throughout Europe, Ice Wine, as the name suggests, is made with grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine. Riesling and Gewürztraminer are mainly used in Europe, while Canada also utilizes Vidal, a white hybrid grape that is commonly grown in Canada and New York State. There are also red versions made with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and other grapes. It is becoming more difficult each year to achieve the low temperatures required for this style, as the grapes have to be frozen naturally on the vine and must be picked when the temperature is 20° F. German versions are known as Eiswein. Wherever it’s produced, a well-made white ice wine will have apricot, peach, honey, and light baking-spice flavors, along with vivid acidity and a viscous texture. Cabernet Franc–based ice wine offers flavors of cherry, blackberry, baking spice, and white chocolate. Among the best Canadian producers are Inniskillin, Peller Estates, Jackson-Triggs, and Mission Hill. The finest German bottles come from Egon Müller, Weingut Donnhoff, Dr. Loosen, and Schloss Johannisberg.
Savory Pairings: Fried chicken, blue cheese, baked brie, caramelized onion quiche.
Dessert Pairings: Flan, cheesecake, rum raisin ice cream.