Okay after a few very geeky weeks and science not exactly being my strong suit I felt immediately back at home with a glass in hand tasting a selection of sweet wines in week 8 of my WSET Diploma.
Sweet wines have a very special place in my heart – I LOVE them, now I’m not talking about loving sweetened, cheap Californian wines I’m talking about the concentrated, sweet even luscious wines from France, Hungary, Canada and Germany.
There are three main ways to make sweet wines, you can:
- Interrupt fermentation
- Add a sweetening component
- Concentrate the sugars naturally present in the grape (this is the most expensive method as production costs increase and there is a reduced volume)
1. INTERRUPTING FERMENTATION
The most common way to interrupt fermentation is by fortification and to add a grape spirit, which is how Port, Vin doux naturels e.g. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, and Liqueur Muscats like Rutherglen Muscat are made.
Alternatively, fermentation can be ‘stunned’ by adding S0² and lowering the temperature. Wine can then be filtered to remove yeasts and avoid refermentation and other bacteria spoilage (this is how a high quality medium dry Riesling may be made see Week 7).
2. ADDING A SWEETENING COMPONENT
For everyday, high volume sweet wines it is more common to add a sweetening component.
Legally, you cannot add sugar directly to a wine to make it sweet (Chapitalisation – where sugar is added to wine before fermentation does not make a wine sweet, the added sugar simply serves to increase the end alcohol level – as all the sugar turns to alcohol and the wines are fermented to dry).
Other sweet liquids can be used to sweeten a wine this include:
- Rectified concentrated grape must (RCGM)
- Süssreserve – unfermented grape juice, which must be of the same origin and quality of the wine to which it is being added
3. CONCENTRATE THE SUGARS NATURALLY PRESENT IN THE GRAPE
My favourite sweet wines and in fact some of the world’s best sweet wines are made by concentrating sugars naturally present in grapes.
There are a number of ways to create these sweet beauties including using grapes that are either:
Grapes can be harvested and dried on straw mats – the grapes shrivel and the sugars are concentrated e.g. Vino Santo (Italy, Santorini), PX Sherry
Sometimes grapes are dried or raisined on the vine called passerillage in French. Many wines that traditionally rely on botrytis also include a proportion of passerillage fruit, the quantity of which varies from year to year.
Here, healthy grapes are left on the vine until they freeze. Hard-core grape pickers, pick the grapes overnight at temperatures of -7 in Germany and -8°C in Canada. They are taken to the winery when still frozen and pressed very quickly, the water in the berry is frozen so the juice that is released is concentrated and full of undiluted, natural sugar.
These wines are a beautiful golden colour and are lusciously sweet and have pure, concentrated fruit flavours and aromas. Examples include Ice wine in Canada, and Eiswein in Germany and Austria.
There is a process called ‘cryoextraction’ which cheats the natural freezing of grapes on the vine and freezes picked grapes in man-made freezers. This process is banned in traditional ice wine regions of Germany and Canada. Spain has recently established a new D.O. called Vino Dulce de Hielo or Vi Dolç del Fred. It is the first European appellation to permit the artificial freezing of grapes for the production of sweet wines, note these cannot be labelled as ‘ice wine’.
- Late Harvested
Late harvest wines are made sweet in exactly the way you’d expect given the name, the grapes are harvested later that usual to allow more sugars to build up in the grapes. There is then so much sugar that not all of it turns to alcohol during fermentation and so a full, flavoured sweet wine results.
- Noble rot
Noble rot otherwise known as botrytis cinerea is a fungal disease which causes healthy fruit to shrivel and the sugars to concentrate – botrytis cinerea in its malevolent form, commonly known as Grey Rot, is to be avoided and gives grapes a rotten, mouldy, vinegary aroma.
Thin skinned grape varieties such as Riesling, Semillon and Chenin Blanc are particularly susceptible to noble rot.
Botrytis affected fruit are harvested in a series of ‘tries’ where only botrytis berries are picked. Examples include Sauternes and Monbazillac in France, Tokaji in Hungary, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany and Austria and Botrytis Semillon in Australia.
We had the pleasure of enjoying six very different sweet wines in class, some brief tasting notes are detailed below.
2006 Corte Sant’Alda Recioto Della Valpolicella, Veneto RRP £37.00 Wine Traders
Made from the Corvina grape, this is a red, garnet coloured wine with a pronounced nose of stewed black cherry, chocolate, and dried fruits and spice. On the palate, it is sweet, with relatively low levels of fine tannins and yet is full-bodied with high levels of alcohol (15%) and bags of concentrated black cherry and dried fruit and a long lingering finish.
THIS WINE IS MADE USING DRIED, CONCENTRATED GRAPES
2008 Domaine Bellegarde Cuvee Tradition, Juracon – South West France RRP £7.99 Yapp Bros
A youthful, light pungent wine with a beautiful bouquet of citrus, honeysuckle, pineapple with floral notes. The wine has lots of acidity which is balanced by the sweetness. It is a very pleasant wine, best drunk young, and does not have a great deal of complexity but is quite typical of a wine of this style.
THIS IS A LATE HARVEST WINE
2008 Peller Estates Vidal Icewine, Ontario – Canada, RRP £26.00 Entoria
Made from the hybrid, frost resistant Vidal variety, it is a stunning gold colour with a little pettiance and lots of legs.
It is lusciously sweet with 185 g of residual sugar and has high viscosity and acidity. On the nose it is youthful with plenty of primary fruit citrus, apricot, dried mango and floral notes. On the palate it has more concentrated honey, apricot and floral notes.
THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF AN ICEWINE
2007 Chateau Pierre Bise Les Rouanniere Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu Anjou Samur – Loire Valley £19.49 Stone, Vine & Sun
On the nose there are hints of botrytis with orange/marmalade notes and lashings of honey and dried fruit with a nutty, smokey finish. The acidity and sweetness comes together and is well-balanced. This deeply flavoured wine has an abundance of fresh fruit, citrus, lemon, apricot and honey and marmalade.
BOTRYTIS/LATE HARVEST WINE
2000 Tokaji Aszu Oremus 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji – Hungary RRP £26.69 Fields, Morris & Verdin
Tokaji is a real treat. a concentrated honey, caramel, orange peel flavour bomb with a smokey, nutty finish and the trademark botrytis flavour characteristic – marmalade.
This is a very good wine that is ready to drink but at 10 years old can still develop.
THIS IS A WINE MADE FROM BOTRYTIS AFFECTED GRAPES, ASZU = NOBLE ROT
1989 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling
Beerenau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer – Germany RRP £44.00 O W Loeb
A fairly deep golden colour, this wine has a complex nose with citrusy lime and stone fruit, Riesling’s trademark petrol nose (yes that is a good thing) and a minerality.
On the palate it has high acidity but low alcohol and is light bodied with an underlying vegetal/spice flavour adding depth to citrus fruit flavours. This wine has a racy elegance and is perfectly balanced, a wine of great contrasts and complexity.