How to buy Sweet Wine
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The sweetness codes in the List and on our website are designed to help members choose their preferred style of wine. Graded in the List from 1 (bone-dry) to 9 (intensely sweet), the rating is intended to convey the sensation of sweetness on the palate rather than precise levels of residual sugar. Levels of acidity will counterbalance sweetness. Our notes on the wines should clarify this and an appreciation of how the wine was made provides more of an understanding. Wines of dessert-grade sweetness (coded 6/'sweet' and above) have their own section in the List and online. These are the wines we focus on below.
When selecting sweet wines one should also consider the grapes involved, and their affinity with various foods. There are sweet wines for just about every dessert (though be careful with dishes containing chocolate), not forgetting that sweet wines can be delicious with cheese and rich pâtés too.
Sweet by design
We tend to think of pudding wines collectively, according to whether they are born sweet (muscat, for example), achieve sweetness (through noble rot, perhaps) or have sweetness thrust upon them (as do liqueur wines). But essentially there are only two ways that wines achieve higher sugar levels: the first is by dehydration where the water content is reduced concentrating the sugars in the grape. The second method involves stopping fermentation so that the sugar is retained in the wine rather than being converted into alcohol.
Botrytis cinerea is the name of the fungus responsible for producing some of the world's finest sweet wines. Where conditions are right, usually damp early mornings and long, warm autumnal afternoons, the mould grows on the skins of healthy grapes concentrating the sugars by puncturing the grape skin and allowing moisture in the grape to evaporate. The same spore brings about harmful grey rot that can destroy a whole crop but with the assiduous attention of the winemaker, the result is luscious, golden wines with a characteristic hint of orange-marmalade often with the ability to age for decades. Harvesting the grapes is highly labour-intensive, involving several passes through the vines picking only those bunches, or even individual berries, that are suitably shrivelled.
Botrytised wines are produced throughout the wine world wherever the special climatic conditions promote the growth of noble rot (and in some cases, even where they don't, as the grapes can be artificially infected with the spores). But the great sweet whites of Bordeaux (Sauternes and Barsac), Germany's Auslesen (which means 'a selective picking'), Beerenauslesen (selected berries) and Trockenbeerenauslese (selected dried berries) and Hungarian Tokaji, that are generally considered to be the classics.
The waxy, blossomy semillon and tangy sauvignon grapes of Sauternes combined with its perfect balance of sweetness and acidity make the wine a good match for Roquefort cheese or pâté de fois gras. Younger wines go especially well with fruit salads and flans while older, finer wines marry well with richer egg-based puddings like crème brulée or a decadent bread and butter pudding.
In Germany riesling combines delicacy with power: intensity with a lightness of touch with refreshing life-giving acidity and low alcohol. The finest wines should just be sipped and enjoyed on their own.
Tokaji wines are made primarily from the furmint grape (hárslevelu is increasing in importance) and spends many months untouched in small demijohns or casks intensifying the citrus-peel character of the grape and luscious caramel flavours. Wonderful with fruit-cake or to sip alongside some nuts and dried fruit.
The Loire Valley produces great long-lived wines from the chenin blanc grape in Vouvray, Montlouis, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. The grape's characteristic honey and lemon flavour and luscious, creamy sweetness combined with brisk acidity make these good with tarte aux pommes, baked cheesecake, rich pâtés or creamy cheeses.
Alsace's finest sweet wines, labelled as Sélection de grains nobles may only be made from the four noble varieties. Gewurztraminer and pinot gris are the most common, riesling and muscat are rarely seen. Often heady and exotic with a distinctive hint of spice, these make wonderful sipping wines or serve with Munster cheese or puddings with a touch of ginger.
Further afield in Australia, De Bortoli's Noble One has become a trail-blazer for Australian 'stickie' wines. Made in New South Wales from the semillon grape, its creamy, marmalade flavours work well with pannacotta or an apricot and almond tart. The Rutherglen region of northern Victoria is the true home of Aussie stickies made from muscat though, with a tradition for making this style which exists nowhere else in the world, going back to the 1800s.
Another way of achieving extra sweetness in the grapes is to leave them to hang on the vine for as long as possible. The super-ripe grapes start to dehydrate by a process called passerillage, giving an altogether different character to the grapes than is achieved through noble rot. As the weather becomes colder, the vine starts to shut down, depriving the remaining fruit of nourishment. Lack of water causes the berries to shrivel up but changes also occur in the chemical compounds within the grape, making the resulting wines taste quite different from grapes harvested earlier with similar sugar levels. Often the wines are not as sweet as one would expect but top examples display an exquisite balance between sweetness and acidity.
Though many wine regions around the world will produce late-harvest wines, this style of winemaking has its spiritual home in Alsace. Indeed it is only here, thanks to the work of the late Johnny Hugel, that there is any formal legislation governing the production of late-harvest or Vendange Tardive wines. It is here that arguably, the finest examples of the style are made.
The south-west of France also has a tradition of producing late-harvest wines, the best-known being those from Jurançon in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Further north in Armagnac country the enterprising Grassa family produce an exquisitely balanced sweet wine from the same grape, petit manseng.
Germany combines delicacy with power in ethereal dessert rieslings, on a range from late-harvested (Spätlese) through increasing degrees of superripeness (Auslese and Beerenauslese) to more concentrated and often nobel rotaffected (Trockenbeerenauslese). The ultimate late-harvest wines are made from berries left so long on the vine that the berries freeze in the first snows. Water in the berries freezes concentrating the acids and sugar in the grapes which are unaffected by noble rot. Rarely made, icewine or eiswein is one of the world's most spectacular sweet wines.
All dried out
Rather than leaving grapes on the vine to dehydrate, since ancient times, some winemakers pick the grapes and either leave them on the ground to dry out, lay them on straw mats or, more likely nowadays, allow them to dry in purpose-built huts. This technique is used to make Tuscany's glorious Vin Santo but is employed throughout Italy and in other parts of the wine world. It is an expensive and fiddly business though, so the wines are not that common and tend to be rather pricey.
Stopping fermentation so that sugar is retained in the wine is a technique that has been used since ancient times. When young wines are bottled before all the sugar has been turned into alcohol, fermentation continues in bottle giving off carbon-dioxide which dissolves in the wine. This technique, known as méthode ancestrale, is used in Limoux where the appley mauzac, or 'blanquette' grape, makes for a delightful, fresh, lightly effervescent wine at low alcohol, that would be perfect as an aperitif or with tarte. In Piedmont, Moscato d'Asti is made in a similar way, though the wine is chilled down to retain all the floral, grapy character of the grape. Frothy rather than bubbly and light in alcohol, this is magical at perking up jaded palates and effortlessly partners sweet pastries.
The other broad category of sweet wines made by stopping fermentation is somewhat erroneously termed vin doux naturel (naturel because the sweetness is natural). There is really nothing natural at all about the process whereby these wines acquire sweetness, rather, fermentation is stopped by the addition of spirit to the must (or môut); a process known as mutage. This can be done either before fermentation, as in Pineau des Charentes, making for a delicious, full-flavoured vin de liqueur to be enjoyed chilled as an aperitif, or during fermentation. The muscat grape once again reigns supreme in this guise, making Christmas-pudding wines par excellence. Whether from the spiritual homeland of the south for France, Australia's 'stickie' heartland in Rutherglen, Victoria, or the beguiling version, with hints of honey and caramelised orange from the island of Samos.
In the red corner, the chunky grenache grape becomes, dense, powerful and exotic in the fortified wines of Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury. These wines age almost indefinitely becoming incredibly concentrated as they do. If their inherent charms were not enough, the fact that these wines are good with chocolate should make them unmissable!
How to serve them
You'll find examples of most of the above styles in our List and online, with recommendations on what to serve with them and you can also use our Food & Wine Matcher to find suggestions of wines for specific dishes. These are based on a balance of sweetness and acidity, the attraction of opposites (eg salt and sugar) and the affinity different grapes have with certain ingredients – chenin blanc with stewed apples, for example. Make sure that the wine fits logically into the 'order of service' – from light to stronger styles, with an honourable exception for a palate-refreshing glass of fizz at the end of a meal. Scroll down for guidelines on serving temperatures.
Sweet wines, like fine dry whites, should be pleasantly cool, but never over-chilled, which strips flavour and dumbs complexity. On the other hand, there is nothing worse than soupy dessert wine. If you store your wine in a cold room, outbuilding or cellar, say at around 13°C, that's a good start for fortified reds, like Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes, though the finer old solera wines are delicious at room temperature. Aim for 10-11°C for fortified muscats, such as Beaumes de Venise, but serve lighter muscats and moscato d'Asti cooler, say 6-7°C, which works for most of the inexpensive unfortified pudding wines.
The more complex stickies expresss themselves most eloquently between 8°C and 11°C, with full-throttle sweet Vouvray and other Loire chenins, Jurançon, Tokaji, dessert gewurztraminer and pinot gris at the lower end, and ethereal German and Alsace rieslings and premium Sauternes at the higher limit. For those without a wine thermometer, that's up to an hour in the fridge from cellar-cool, and a good half-hour longer from centrally-heated room temperature.
A bucket half-filled with ice and topped up with water will deliver the same result as a domestic fridge in less than half the time and a Rapid Ice does the job in minutes, so keep one in the freezer for emergencies. Avoid putting bottles in the freezer, though, because it's all too easy to forget about them. Prolonged freezing does good wine no favours, and may even dislodge the cork.
Remember that wine warms up quickly, especially in a centrally-heated room, but if you have inadvertently chilled a bottle too hard, there is nothing quite as efficient as the human hand, cupped around the glass, to restore a few degrees of warmth. Resist above all the temptation to use the microwave!
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