This is the first in a three-part series on sweet wines. In this article, I’ll explore the different ways sweet wines are made. In the next two articles, we’ll take a delicious stroll down Sweet Wine Lane.
When it comes to sweet wines, the age-old aim has been to create a sweet, tasty wine with good alcohol content. It’s easy to make a highly alcoholic drink with flavors ranging from bitter to no taste at all, but where wine is concerned, this ratio is especially important. I think this is because with regular alcohol, it’s easy to blend juices and other mixers to achieve the exact flavor you want. With wine, the wine is the flavor.
There are basically six ways to make sweet wine.
Chemical stabilization. Here, sulfur dioxide is introduced to stop the fermentation process. This method is least used, probably because it often leads to odd smells and flavors.
Fortification. This sweetening method involves adding a distilled spirit like brandy to the wine during fermentation. The addition of brandy stops the fermentation process, locking in the sugars. This process was originally used as a stabilizer against microorganisms. Often spices, citric fruit skins and other flavors are added to the wine along with the alcohol.
The remaining four methods involve drying out the grape, thereby reducing water content that dilutes the sugars. Expect a more raisin-y flavor from these wines.
Drying. Grapes harvested and laid out on straw mats to dry and shrivel a bit will have a higher sugar to water ratio, resulting in a sweeter wine.
Late harvest. Grapes allowed to stay on the vine as late as possible, even through early frosts will also have a naturally lower water content, thus raising the sugar level.
Freezing. Famous German Eiswein (literally, “ice wine”) is created when grapes are naturally or artificially frozen, and the frozen water is extracted, leaving more natural sugars.
Noble rot. The bacteria Botrytis produces a drying effect. The bacteria “drink” up a grape’s water content, thus leaving more natural sugars behind.
Sweet wines certainly have a place at the dinner table. Sweet, sparkling wines can accompany any dinner course, from appetizer to dessert. Sweet wines are great accompaniments to salty, spicy Chinese food or lighter summer fare. Dessert naturally comes to mind when I think of sweet wines, but don’t disregard a sweeter red as a great option for a warming goulash or slow-cooked stew. And of course, you can always do what the English are known to do. Enjoy a white fortified wine (Sherry) before dinner followed by dry wine with dinner followed by a red fortified wine (Port) after dinner.