Sweet wine is one of the oldest styles of wine in the world. In Ancient times, people used to add honey and herbs to wines to improve their flavour as uncontrolled fermentations probably meant wines did not have a pleasant taste. Another common practice involved boiling grape must to produce more concentrated drinks which were also more stable and sweeter. Ever since then, the history of wine and sweet wines has evolved side by side over the centuries. There is such a variety and diversity of sweet wines nowadays that it is essential to look at a few key points to enjoy them to the fullest.
The features of sweet wine
Where does the sweetness come from?
Sweet wines are those which have a sweet taste thanks to their sugar content. Although this sugar comes from the grapes, there are many ways to produce these kinds of wines. Basically, the two most generic styles are known as doux naturel (natural sweet) wines and naturally sweet ones. Doux naturel wines are created by adding wine alcohol or spirit to the must while it is fermenting to halt the process before all the sugar has been consumed. On the other hand, naturally sweet wines are those which have not had any extra alcohol added, meaning their sweetness and alcohol content are those created naturally by the grape must used.
Aged sweet wines
Some of the best sweet wines in the world are aged in wooden barrels to gain in depth and aromas. Static ageing involves allowing the wine to age in the same barrel, whereas dynamic ageing means regularly transferring the wine to other barrels to blend with wines from different vintages. This method is called the solera system where different aged barrels of wine are kept in tiers known as criaderas.
The grapes behind sweet wine
Almost all kinds of grape can be used to produce sweet wines as they all contain sugar. However, certain varieties are well-known as grapes for sweet wines as they have traditionally been used more successfully. Grenache, Muscat, Pedro Ximénez, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Furmint, Malvasía, Riesling, Vidal and Chenin Blanc are some of the grapes behind the world’s most extraordinary sweet wines.
The most famous sweet wine regions in the world
Tokaj in Hungary, Sauternes in Bordeaux, and Coteaux du Layon in the Loire Valley are well-known for their intense sweet white wines produced by the effects of botrytis or noble rot on the grapes. Ice wine is another kind of sweet wine made with grapes which have frozen while on the vine. Thanks to their cold winters, Germany, Canada and Austria are home to great examples of this dessert wine. Germany also produces excellent naturally sweet wines from Riesling grapes affected by botrytis. Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are wonderful examples of these sweet German wines. Italy creates splendid sweet wines with raisined grapes such as Vin Santo, Recioto, and Passito, whereas Spain produces many doux naturel sweet wines from regions like Emporda in Catalonia and Andalusia, home to the thrilling Pedro Ximénez wines.
Pairings and kinds of sweet wines
Sweet wines and sweet foods like desserts obviously pair well. However, it is worth bearing in mind that pairing contrasting flavours can generate surprising balances. Sweet wines pair well with salty or bitter foods too, making them a good match for blue cheese or dark chocolate. Sauternes wines and foie gras are a popular combination, and a perfect example to show that sweet wines are not only for dessert-time.