Many wine lovers have a clear preference for dry wines, and among some of them, sweet wine is even frowned upon. But this rejection means that they will never know some of the world’s best wines. If you want to learn more about sweet wines, you are in the right place.
Sweet wine contains a significant level of residual sugar that gives it a perceivably sweet taste. In some cases, the sugar level can be as high as in soft drinks. Typically, sweet wines offer aromas associated with sweetness, such as tropical fruits, honey, caramel, and marzipan.
To understand why wine is sweet and how it differs from non-sweet wine, let’s discuss how sweet wines are made.
Is Sweet Wine Alcoholic?
Sweet wine is alcoholic and in many cases even stronger than dry table wines. Due to its sweet aromas, the alcohol might not be as perceivable as in dry wines, though.
Is Sweet Wine Fortified?
Many sweet wine producers fortify their wines by adding spirits, but not all of them. Some sweet wines such as Sauternes or Tokaji don’t undergo a fortification process. Thus, these wines’ alcohol content is relatively low in comparison. For instance, Tokaji has not more than 15%, and Sauternes ranges around 13%. In contrast, fortified wines typically have about 20%.
Is Sweet Wine the Same as Dessert Wine?
Many sweet wines are considered dessert wines, and logically, they’re often served with a sweet dessert. However, not all sweet wines belong to the dessert wine category. Some, like late harvest Rieslings, are better matches for main courses than for desserts.
What Is the Difference Between Dry and Sweet Wine?
The difference between sweet and dry wines is their sugar content. Sweet wine is rich in residual sugar. In contrast, dry wine only has a very low level of sugar.
Why Is Wine Sweet?
Whether a wine is sweet or dry depends on a couple of factors. They are all connected to sugar, or more precisely, to the level of residual sugar left in the wine at the end of the production process.
First, the grape variety is crucial. All varietals contain sugar, but some have more than others. Logically, these grapes are better picks for making sweet wine.
Second, it’s essential how long grapes ripen. The more exposure they have to sunlight, the more sugar they will produce. So vintners that allow their grapes to stay on the vines longer will harvest sweeter grapes.
Third, the fermentation process matters. During this process, the grape sugar is transformed into alcohol. And the vintner can regulate the wine’s sweetness by stopping the fermentation before all sugar is transformed. The most common way to do so is fortification: Vintners add a strong spirit that kills the yeast cells, which are responsible for fermentation. Alternatively, they can freeze the wine to achieve the same result.
Grapes Fermenting in a Steel Tank
The Best Types of Sweet Wine
Sweet wines might not be as common as dry wines. Nevertheless, you can find plenty of fantastic sweet wines from all around the world. The following types belong to the best sweet wines.
The Portuguese are famous for making deliciously sweet fortified wines. Port wine is one of them. But actually, it was invented by British merchants. They added a neutral-tasting grape spirit to Portuguese wines to prevent them from spoiling when transporting them to Britain. For this reason, many successful Port houses have English names such as Graham, Taylor, or Sandeman today.
Most Ports are red or golden-colored and sweet, but vintners also produce dry white types. More than 50 different varietals are used to make Port, and most Portuguese vintners prefer local varieties. The wines undergo an extensive aging process of up to 40 years. As a result, they have a great complexity of aromas like red and black fruits, chocolate, caramel, and nuts. In combination with the alcohol levels of around 20%, these sweet wines are full-bodied and rich and make ideal pairings for sweet desserts.
Another popular fortified wine from Portugal is Madeira. Just like Port, Madeira wines were created by chance rather than on purpose. In the 15th century, the island of Madeira was a trading post where merchants traveling from Europa to the Americas replenished their supplies. During their journeys, the sailors discovered that the Caribbean sun cooked the wines they had loaded on Madeira. But instead of spoiling, the wines improved in flavor. Thus, Madeira vintners started to intentionally boil their wines by exposing them to sunlight during the aging process.
Madeira Wines Aging in an Outdoor Storage Area
Madeira wine can range from dry to very sweet. Especially those made from Boal, Malmsey, Terrantez, and Bastardo grapes are on the sweeter side. They can have very complex flavor profiles featuring vanilla, coffee, roasted nuts, honey, or chocolate.
Portugal’s neighbor Spain also produces sweet wines. Its most notable contribution is Sherry, a fortified wine from the Andalusia region. Its history goes back to the 17th century. And like Port, its invention was an accident. Due to Napoleon’s military campaigns, trade relations in Europe suffered, and Spanish vintners couldn’t sell their wines. Some of these wines oxidized in the warehouses. But amazingly, they weren’t ruined. Instead, these wines developed new nutty aromas that made them even better. Inspired by this accident, winemakers started experimenting with purposeful oxidation. And finally, they found reliable methods to produce delicious Sherry wines.
Sherry comes in various styles, and most of them are dry. However, there are sweet wines as well. In particular, Pedro Ximénez and Cream Sherries belong to this category. They are highly aromatic with flavors of dried fruits, honey, and dark chocolate.
Of course, a great wine country like Italy has sweet wines to offer as well. In this case, we talk about Marsala. This fortified wine comes from Sicily, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.
Until the 18th century, it was completely unknown outside of Sicily; also, it wasn’t fortified. But a British merchant, who had a glass of Marsala to celebrate his escape from a terrifying storm, brought it to his homeland. As he was aware of the risk of spoilage, he protected the wine by fortifying it with Brandy. The British high society celebrated this new sweet wine, and so the merchant invested into Sicily’s wineries and created the foundation for the spread of Marsala all over Europe.
Depending on the specific style, Marsala can be a dry or sweet wine. All of them are strong in alcohol, with 15 to 20% vol. The sweet variations typically feature dried fruits, nuts, almonds, spices such as black pepper, thyme, or vanilla, and sometimes floral notes.
Bottle of Marsala Fino
A sweet wine that might be less well-known than Port or Sherry comes from Cyprus, a small nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Commandaria is the world’s oldest named wine. For more than 2800 years, Cyprus vintners have produced this wine, and many historical figures such as King Richard the Lionheart praised it.
One of the secrets for Commandaria’s extraordinary quality is the treatment of the grapes. Vintners let them ripe until late fall, so they contain a lot of sugar when harvested. To concentrate the grape juice even further, they let them dry in the sun for up to three weeks. While the grapes dry out, all of their sugar gathers in the remaining juice.
After fermenting the juice, vintners add a spirit to fortify the wine and let it age for at least four years. Some wines mature even further and stay in oak barrels for up to 15 years. At the end of the process, they have deliciously sweet aromas of honey, caramel, marzipan, dried apricots, and spices.
Late Harvest Wines
Late harvest wine is a category to which wines from many different countries belong. Especially late harvest Rieslings are famous among wine lovers. The best styles come from regions with rather cold climates such as Germany, Austria, Northern France, or Washington State. Other grape varieties that produce great late harvest wines are Muscat, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc, and Chardonnay.
All of these sweet wines have one thing in common: Vintners let them stay on the vines about one to two months longer than grapes for regular table wines. Thus, they can enjoy more sunshine hours and gather more sugar. Unlike Port, Madeira, or Commandaria, late harvest wines are sweet but not fortified. That means vintners don’t add spirits to stop the fermentation early.
Typically, late harvest wines have a moderate alcohol level with aromas of citrus and tropical fruits. Although they are sweet wines, most have a refreshing acidity level that creates an outstanding balance.
Noble Rot Wines
Noble rot wines are special versions of late harvest wines. The grapes for them stay on the vines very long as well. But another factor makes them special: Vintners intentionally expose them to a fungus called “Botrytis Cinerea” or “noble rot“. This fungus covers the grapes with a grayish coat, dehydrates them, and consumes a significant portion of their sugar. It also creates new aromas by metabolizing their acidity. The remaining sugar concentrates in a little bit of juice and forms a thick and extremely sweet syrup. From this syrup, winemakers produce wines with a fantastic balance of sweetness and acidity. Their delicious flavors include notes of tropical fruits, nuts, honey, and ginger.
Famous examples of noble rot wines are:
Ice wines are unfortified yet sweet, too. And just like noble rot wines, they were created by accident. More specifically, they resulted from an early onset of winter that froze the grapes on a German vineyard. The vintners expected them to be ruined, but they were wrong: While the water in the grapes froze, their sugar gathered in a small amount of remaining juice. And this juice could be processed into incredibly sweet wine.
Today, ice wine producers let their grapes freeze intentionally on the vines. Logically, the best places to produce them are countries with cooler climates, such as Germany, Austria, and Canada. Some vintners also freeze their grapes artificially, but that is considered an inferior way to make ice wines. In some regions, it’s even prohibited.
Frozen Grapes for Ice Wine Production
As they don’t undergo fortification, ice wines are rather low in alcohol in comparison to other sweet wines. Usually, they range between 6 and 13% vol. They are very sweet but also have a good level of acidity. This balance and the aromas of dried fruits, tropical fruits, and honey make them extraordinarily good.
Sweet Sparkling Wines
While most wine lovers can name at least one still sweet wine, sweet sparkling wines are relatively unknown. But actually, you can find various types of sweet sparklers from different parts of the world.
The production of sweet sparkling wine doesn’t differ significantly from dry styles: After the harvest and grape pressing, they undergo at least one, but often two, fermentation phases. But vintners interrupt the fermentation at some point, so the wines contain a decent amount of residual sugar. As a result, they are at least slightly sweet and low in alcohol.
Among others, these are popular sweet wines with bubbles:
- Moscato d’Asti (semi-sparkling) and Asti Spumante (full-sparkling) from the Piedmont region in Italy
- Lambrusco, a red sparkler from Lombardy, Italy
- Brachetto, another Italian style, also from Piedmont
Can Sweet Wine Go Bad?
Like any other wine, sweet wine can go bad. In many cases, especially if the sweet wine is fortified, it might have a longer lifespan than a dry, non-fortified wine. But in the end, any wine can spoil if you mishandle it.
To maximize your sweet wine’s lifespan, store it in a dark, cool place. Protect it from temperature changes, sunlight, vibrating devices such as refrigerators or air conditioning, and strong smells from chemicals like cleaning agents, wall paint, or heating oil.
Sweet wine definitely is not everybody’s cup of tea. But even if you have rejected sweet wines so far, you should rethink your position. Otherwise, you might miss an extraordinary delicious wine experience.