There is an entire host of wines that were once among the most coveted in the world, but have a minimal impact on the wine market today. Sicilian Marsala, Cypriot Commandaria, Hungarian Tokaji, Tuscan Vinsanto, South African Constantia… these were all superstars in the past, but are rare to spot in an American wine store today. You may have noticed the commonality between them - these are all sweet wines.
It’s hard to believe now, but in 1950, 70% of all American wine consumption was in the form of dessert or fortified wine. By 1970, this number had fallen to about 25%, and these days, hovers right around 2%. Even for the styles that dominate this tiny slice - Port, Sherry, Sauternes, Eiswein - sales continue to flag, and many iconic producers now make as much or more dry wine as they do sweet.
Somewhere along the line, it became a truism to many wine drinkers that serious wine is dry wine. Maybe this is a reaction to the White Zinfandel craze of yesteryear, or to a painful encounter in college that so many of us had with a boxed Moscato, or perhaps it’s simply a part of the general pushback against the overly-sugared processed foods endemic to America. It’s the general perception that a sweet tooth is the basest of palates, and one of the most rewarding things about wine is developing our palates into something a little more discerning.
But I promise you, a decent Eiswein or Tokaji is not White Zinfandel! Wines with high sugar contents have full potential to display dynamic complexity and delicate agility. Interested in giving sweet wine another whirl? Here are three broad categories of the world’s greatest sweet wines to consider.
Vineyards in Banyuls.
The most popular form of sweet wine today, fortified wine is usually made by adding brandy before fermentation is complete. The sudden influx of alcohol has the effect of killing all the yeast, halting fermentation and leaving a final product that is both rather sweet and rather strong. The earlier in the fermentation process the brandy is added, the sweeter the wine will be. This also has the effect of warding off spoilage, so fortified wines were the most reliable for transport before modern methods of preservation and shipping were available. As a result, many of these styles became favorites in England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, which had no domestic wine production of their own and were sending maritime voyages around the world. It also found devoted followers in the nascent United States, with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington being two famous patrons of Madeira wine.
Banyuls is perhaps the greatest wine of Roussillon, or French Catalonia. Tucked away in the far southern corner of the country, Roussillon is a tiny wine region consisting of what is basically one gigantic cliff as the Pyrenees rush madly downhill to the Mediterranean. The eastern-facing slopes soaked in sun make a wonderful environment for happy little Grenache bunches - but even that isn’t enough heat for many Banyuls producers, who add a finishing touch by leaving the barrels out in the summer heat for a season, typically under rafters but sometimes in direct sunlight. The result is a muscular, dank flavor array of prunes, coffee grounds, and damp wood.
Fortified wine is often enjoyed alone as an aperitif or a digestif, though those enjoyed before a meal are typically expected to be significantly drier. The power and concentration of fortified wine typically calls for a food pairing that will act as a simple palate cleanser between sips - think nuts, stinky cheese, berries, or even dark chocolate for a fortified red like Banyuls.
If you’re squeamish about fungus, look away, because many of the world’s greatest dessert wines are produced with the help of a mold called Botrytis, or Noble Rot. (Did they look away? Because the yeast that makes every alcoholic drink under the sun are fungi too, and we wouldn’t want to ruin everything for them.) In persistently humid conditions, Botrytis can wipe out effected grape bunches and act as a terror upon vineyards. But when a wet period is followed by a dry spell, Botrytis can drain the grapes of their water while leaving a high percentage of sugar and acid, and leaving behind a highly-coveted signature savory flavor akin to honey or ginger. The dessicated grapes create hugely concentrated, textured wines that are prevented from becoming syrupy by their sky-high acidity.
As the great wine regions of the middle Loire have always been much more farmer-driven than merchant-driven, the producers of Late-Harvest Chenin Blanc have had a much tougher time riding out the collapse of the sweet wine market than their cousins in Sauternes or Porto. Most have converted their production overwhelmingly to (admittedly fantastic) dry Chenin Blanc. But there are still plenty of old Late-Harvest Chenin bottles floating around out there, and as they develop with age they often prove to be the most elegant, graceful form of sweet wine.
The most famous food pairing for Botrytised wine is of course Sauternes and foie gras, though any form of pâté will make for a great experience. The savory nature of Botrytised wine also means that it pairs brilliantly with desserts on the more complex side, such as cheesecake or creme brulée.
Examples: Eiswein, some Auslese Riesling, Vinsanto, Recioto, Passito, Vin de Paille
Harvest time at Canada's Inniskillin.
There are a handful of techniques for dessicating grapes that don’t involve fungus. The most straightforward is simply leaving the grapes on the vine well beyond traditional ripeness, so they begin to raisinate in the sun. The most famous form of this is Germany’s Auslese Rieslings, though some can be affected by botrytis, and they can be vinified dry as well. Of course, in northerly regions like Germany, as the season advances, temperatures drop beyond freezing. This separates out the water, again leaving the grape flesh highly concentrated in sugar and acid. Eiswein is a tricky proposition - only if the conditions are just right, and the temperature falls to 19°F (typically in the middle of the night) before the grapes go bad, the harvesters rush into the fields and send the frozen bunches directly to the presses. As you might imagine, this process is not exactly foolproof, and only possible in perfect vintages.
Inniskillin is perhaps Canada’s most significant winery, and one of the world's premiere Eiswein producers. Working on the Niagara Peninsula with an ultra-hardy variety called Vidal Blanc, they successfully created their first viable Eiswein in 1984 after a few false starts. Canada’s Eiswein industry advanced rapidly, surpassing Germany as the world’s largest producer in the early 2000s.
Eiswein pairs perfectly with breadier desserts, such as strudel, tarts, or danishes. A touch of saltiness can also be a revelation, such as cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Then again, with its relatively low alcohol content and high sugar content, Eiswein can make a fantastic treat standing on its own at any time of the day.
The largest, and oldest, type of sweet wine is straw wine, in which the grapes are removed from the vine, laid out on a straw mat, and left in a dry place to dessicate before the wine is made. Straw wine comes in many forms around the Mediterranean, with the oldest known description coming from Hesiod in 800 BC. These wines were coveted across the classical world, and continue to be fixtures in the Mediterranean world of today.
As with any other form of wine, producers can get creative with their methods - and sometimes, they started getting creative long ago! Commandaria, from Cyprus, claims to be the oldest named form of wine still in production today. It was famously served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart, just before the launch of the Third Crusade. Commandaria presents a combination of several methods described above: the grapes are allowed to hang on the vine for an extended period, are laid out on straw wines to desiccate further, and finally are often (though not always) made fortified by adding brandy before fermentation is complete.
In conclusion, it’s high time for wine drinkers to start remembering the great forgotten wine category, and there’s no better time than now. The market for great sweet wines can’t bottom out much more than it already has, so there’s a ton of value to be found if you’re looking to score a best-in-its-class, nuanced, cerebral wine for a reasonable price. Even the most humorless intellectual loves a bowl of ice cream, and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t like wine, so it shouldn’t be such a faux-pas to put sweetness and alcohol together.
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- Tags: Auslese, Banyuls, Barsac, Beerenauslese, Commandaria, Dessert Wine, Eiswein, Fortified Wine, Late Harvest, Marsala, Port, Sauternes, Sherry, Straw Wine, Sweet Wine, Tokaji, Vin Santo