Sweet wine, explained: Everything you need to know about the delicious, sugary tipple

Wednesday, 17 January, 2024
Robb Report, Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen
Sweet wine is more than just a dessert drink.

If we had one small wish for the new year, it would be that sweet wines make a comeback. In a recent Oeno Files newsletter piece on Port, we lamented the fact that we’re no longer asked if we want a sweet wine with our dessert in restaurants; we are just offered cappuccino and espresso. This happens even in fine-dining establishments, which have a dedicated selection of by-the-glass sweet wines sharing space with the dessert menu. It’s no wonder that legacy sweet wine regions like Portugal’s Douro Valley (the home of Port) and Hungary’s Tokaj-Hegyalja (birthplace of Tokaj) are producing dry wines alongside their luscious, sweet offerings. Don’t get us wrong, we love a good dry Douro red or Hungarian Furmint, but we would love to see sweet wine regain its standing among wine lovers.

There is an unfortunate misconception among wine drinkers that wine with higher residual sugar (RS) is cheap and not to be taken seriously. Prior to the Prohibition, Americans brought their sweet tooth to the liquor store, and fortified or Port-style wines—what the Australians call “stickies”—reigned supreme. With the destruction of the United States wine industry under the Prohibition and the post-WWII shift toward fine, dry vino from France and Italy in the middle of the 20th century, sweet wine fell out of favor. Although there are bursts here and there of a comeback, usually fueled by sommeliers and wine journalists, we have not seen a sustained movement toward a return to the glory days of sweet wine.

Some of the finest wines in the world are sweet. What sets a well-made option apart is its acidity, which keeps the sugar in check and keeps the wine from feeling overly cloying. Due to their high sugar content and high acidity, sweet wines age beautifully and will last for many years when properly cellared. And while we love these with dessert or even on their own at the end of a meal, we also like the idea of serving them with savory appetizers or main courses. Here are the main styles to look for:

Fortified: Neutral spirits or brandy are added to wine during fermentation, which kills the yeast and maintains a higher level of residual sugar. Fortified wines such as Port, Madeira, and Marsala have a higher sugar content than dry wine as well as a higher alcohol level.

Late Harvest: Grapes are left hanging on the vine for one to two months longer than normal, which dries the grapes and concentrates sugar.

Ice Wine: Grapes are frozen while still on the vine and are often picked as late as December or January. The water in the grapes freezes but the sugar does not, which concentrates the flavor and increases the sweetness level of finished wine.

Passito: This refers to wine made from dried grapes. Sugar is concentrated during the drying process, and the wine made from the dried grapes has increased sugar content and alcohol.

Botrytized: Botrytis cinerea, the gray mold known as Noble Rot, dehydrates the grapes, which increases the proportion of fruit sugars and acids, offering a sweeter, more intensely flavored berry from which to make wine.

While fortified wine can be made anywhere, botrytized wines and ice wine are weather and climate dependent and are produced in a handful of specialized regions. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Italian will recognize the origin of the word “passito,” a style of wine that hails from Italy. Here are our picks for the world’s finest sweet wines.

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