Sweet wines come in all sorts of styles, from the light and refreshing to the rich and dessert-like. Because of their intense sweetness, they are often more palatable for a beginner wine drinker, because they go down easy and taste like dessert in a glass.
However, we’ve all been standing in the wine aisle looking for something we might like without actually knowing what we’re looking at. If you’re new to sweet wines and want to learn a bit about the different the different styles of sweet wine, this guide to sweet wines for beginners will help you get started.
What Makes a Wine Sweet?
Sweet wines are made from grapes that have been harvested late, been affected by noble rot, or have been dried on racks or in straw baskets. Each of these processes concentrate the sugar in the grapes, resulting in sweet, honeyed flavors. Sweet wines can also be fortified with brandy, which stops the fermentation process and leaves residual sugar in the wine.
What is Residual Sugar?
Residual sugar is the amount of sugar that is left in the wine after the fermentation process is stopped. The amount of residual sugar in wine can vary, but most sweet wines have around 10-15% residual sugar. You might hear someone say this to you while wine tasting, and now you’ll know that a sweeter wine has some amount of residual sugar while a dry wine rarely has any residual sugar.
What is Late Harvesting?
Grapes are usually harvested in the early fall when their composition is perfect for wine making. While this sounds quite technical and us casual wine drinkers don’t really need to think at all about it, grapes are often harvested when the brix is between 20 to 25, depending on the variety, and the pH is between 3.2-3.5.
If that doesn’t make you glad you’re not a grape grower or wine maker, you can get into much more specifics of the science behind it, but for now suffice it to say that grapes for table wines are harvested when they are perfect for dry wines.
To make a sweeter wine, you need to leave the grapes on the vine to ripen longer so that the sugar concentration increases. This is called late harvesting. Late harvesting results in sweet, honeyed flavors in the wine. The best example of late harvesting happens in Germany with the Riesling grape.
If you leave the grapes on the vine so far past the regular growing season, like 1-2 months, they can actually freeze on the vine. This type of late harvesting produces and even sweeter wine called Ice Wine. You’ll find a lot of great ice wines in Canada. It’s also called Eiswein in Germany and Austria.
What is Noble Rot?
Noble rot is a type of mold or botrytis that affects the grapes on the vine. It latches on to over-ripe grapes and penetrates the skins, leading to water loss. While it sounds a little unappetizing, Noble rot is a desirable trait in sweet wine grapes, as it increases the sugar concentration and results in sweet wines.
According to Bordeaux.com, “This royal rot is what we have to thank for Bordeaux’s signature sweet white wines, most often referred to as Sauternes.” The Sauternes region of Bordeaux in France is one of the most famous ‘noble rot’ regions, but it’s not the only one.
What Are Fortified Wines?
Some sweet wines are fortified with brandy, which stops the fermentation process and leaves residual sugar in the wine. A good example of a fortified wine is Port from Portugal. Adding a spirit like brandy not only adds to the sugar content of the wine, but it also increases the alcohol volume.
In the past, adding a neutral spirit to the wine enabled it to be preserved for longer, so this technique was used in the Old World to keep wine from going bad. However, the added sweetness and punch of alcohol became a desirable characteristic of these wines.
The 5 most common fortified wines around the world are Sherry from Spain, Port from Portugal, Madeira from the Madeira region of Spain, Marsala from Sicily, and Vermouth from Italy.
Varieties of Sweet Wine
There are many different varieties of sweet wines, beyond the ones we’ve already mentioned. You can actually find great sweet wines all over the world, and while they have similar characteristics, they are all different in their own ways.
For wine drinking, you might find one to be more smooth and mild, while others are quite pungent and/or very sweet. Unless you’re a wine connoisseur who’s grown a strong palate for wine, you won’t necessarily enjoy all of these wines equally, but it’s fun to try them all and decide for yourself which ones you do.
A type of sweet wine that is made in the Sauternes region of France. It is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, a type of mold that concentrates the sugars in the grapes. Sauternes has a medium body and sweet, honeyed flavors.
A sweet red wine that is made in the Douro Valley of Portugal. It is made from native Portuguese grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Cao. Port is typically fortified with brandy, which stops the fermentation process and leaves residual sugar in the wine. It is full-bodied and has sweet fruit flavors.
A sweet wine that is made on the island of Madeira, off the coast of Portugal. It is made from native Madeira grape varieties such as Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia. Madeira is fortified with brandy and has a sweet, nutty flavor.
Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
A sweet wine that is made in the Rhone Valley of France. It is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes. This wine is sweet and fruity, with aromas of peach and apricot.
A type of German sweet wine made from Riesling grapes. The grapes are left on the vine longer to concentrate the sugar, or they may be affected by noble rot, a type of mold that concentrates the sugars. Riesling Auslese has sweet, honeyed flavors and aromas of apricot and peach.
A type of fortified wine that is made in Andalusia, Spain. It is made from white grape varieties such as Palomino and Pedro Ximenez. Sherry is aged in barrels under a layer of flor, a type of yeast that protects the wine from oxygen. It is sweet and nutty, with flavors of raisins and almonds.
A type of sweet wine that is made in Hungary from Furmint and Harslevelu grapes affected by noble rot. Tokaji Aszu has a sweet, honeyed flavor and aromas of apricot, peach, and citrus.
An Italian sweet wine made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. The grapes are dried on racks or in straw baskets before fermentation to concentrate the sugars. Vin Santo has a sweet, raisin-like flavor.
A late harvest wine that is made from shriveled, over ripened grapes that have been frozen. It has a high prices and is made in small quantities because it can only be made in more extreme climates, thus it’s rare. Canada and Germany are the larger producers of ice wine in the world.
How To Know If A Sweet Wine is Good
When it comes to sweet wines, there are a few things you should look for to ensure you’re getting a good bottle.
- Make sure the wine is made from quality grapes. Noble rot grapes or grapes that have been dried on racks or in straw baskets are usually the best choice for sweet wines.
- Look on the label for Late Harvest or Ice Wine. Not every region has this type of wine, so you’ll also want to make sure you’re buying one from a region that is known for producing it. If you don’t know, ask.
- Look for sweet wines that have a high residual sugar content. This means that there is more sugar left in the wine after the fermentation process is stopped. Wines with a high residual sugar content will usually have sweet, honeyed flavors.
- Try the wine before you buy it. Sweet wines vary drastically in taste, so it’s important to find one that you enjoy. Once you find a sweet wine that you like, you can confidently buy it again.
- Judge by price. Sweet wines like Ice Wine and a good aged Port are typically higher in price when they’re from a reputable source and high quality. A lower priced one is probably not the way to go.
- Look for wines that have aged or longer. A newer ice wine, for instance, won’t have as much flavor or complexity as one that has aged longer.
Final Thoughts On Sweet Wines For Beginners
As you can see, there are many different types of sweet wines to choose from. So, whether you’re looking for a light and refreshing sweet wine or a rich and dessert-like sweet wine, there’s sure to be one that’s perfect for you.
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Laura is the founder and editor of the travel blogs Savored Sips and Savored Journeys. She is dedicated to sharing the best information about drinks found around the world.