The Scoop on Sweet Wines

Riesling grapes, photo by Stefano Lubia
Riesling grapes, photo by Stefano Lubia

If your sweet tooth is crying out for a sip of something sugary, dessert wine offers the slightly classier, more adult sugar fix than popping open a can of soda. Wine novices often think that sweet wines contain sugar additives, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, there are many different styles of dessert wines stocking supermarket shelves and wine stores – none of which have supplemental sugar and all of which have a very interesting story behind how they came to be.

Sweet wines, also known as dessert wines, tend to cause a “love them or hate ´em” reaction among wine lovers. Perhaps you had a sickeningly sweet experience, one that turned you off, but dessert wines are a versatile bunch: from fruity and light, creamy and rich, nutty, spicy, dense with dried fruit, or reminiscent of chocolate. With a little bit of experimentation, you’re bound to find at least one that fits the bill. Successful sweet wines are those that toe the line between pleasant and eye-crossing sweetness that makes your teeth ache.

Though sweet wines come in innumerable styles, they all have a common thread running through the story line: sugar survival.  Instead of dumping sacks of granulated sugar straight into the tank or barrel, winemakers rely on the sugar content of the grapes themselves. Every single grape berry contains sugar, even the grape varieties that are used to produce dry (not sweet) wines. The difference is how much of that sugar is allowed to survive the fermentation process. As the yeast carries out fermentation, it chows down on the grape sugars in order to produce alcohol (and a handful of additional byproducts). However, if a crafty winemaker comes in and interrupts the yeast's feast, the yeast dies off and the sugar remains.

Though technically any grape can be used to produce a sweet wine if left on the vine long enough, certain grape varieties are particular favorites because of their inherent sweetness and unique aromas. These varieties include Moscato, Pedro Ximinez (in sweet Sherries), Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, and all the many grapes that go into Port wine styles, such as Touriga Nacional, to name just a few. Not to mention that some sweet wines are excellent to enjoy young and some can age for more than half a century (as it turns out, the combination of sweetness and acidity is enough to preserve a fruity wine far into the future).

Here is a run-down of some of the most common methods of making sweet wines. Study up and the next time you walk into the supermarket, you’ll be able to decipher exactly how your sweet wine came to be.

Sandeman Port tasting, photo by Brandon Carson
Sandeman Port tasting, photo by Brandon Carson

Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are made when a liquor is added to fermenting grape juice. This added alcohol – whether it’s brandy, or grape spirits for example – kills the yeast, stops fermentation and causes sugar to be left over. Common examples are Port, Sherry, and Madeira.

Late Harvest

Late harvest wines are the product of sweet, sweet procrastination. Grapes are left to hang on the vines as they dehydrate, causing a grape berry with a higher proportion of sugar and a slightly raisin-like quality.

Nearly Raisins

Similar to late harvest grapes, these grapes are spread out on straw mats to dry out and then they are pressed into wines. Rather than raisinating on the grape vine they dehydrate after being picked.

Ice Wines

When grapes are left on the vine and suffer the first freeze or heavy frost, they can be used to make ice wines. These richly sweet wines generally come from cold wine regions including Germany, Switzerland, and Canada.

Noble Rot

Perhaps the only time that fungus is fun is when it makes wine more delicious. In this case, a little spore known as Botrytis cinerea rots the grape berries and adds a delicious hint of ginger and honey to sweet wines. This is particularly effective when producing Sauternes and one of the most coveted wines of the world, Chateau d'Yquem.

giesen riesling
giesen riesling

Residual Sugar

The final category of sweet wines consists of wines that were cut off during the fermentation process. When this happens, the grape’s sugar is left over, which is called residual sugar, leaving a certain sweetness on the wine drinker’s palate.

Here are some recommendations for sweet wines that earned bronze medals at the 2014 New York International Wine Competition. Find a bottle near you and see if they sweet-talk your palate:

  • Cedar Valley Winery Red Tie Affair This dessert wine is a red wine blend made by Cedar Valley Winery in Iowa and contains more than 6.1% residual sugar. It exhibits notes of dark cherry, juniper berry, chocolate and cedar.
  • Giesen Riesling 2013 This New Zealand Riesling is medium sweet, but still maintains a lively acidity and vibrant flavors including apples, lime, lemongrass, and honeysuckle.
  • Sweet Cheeks Winery & Vineyard Riesling 2013 With 5% residual sugar, this Oregon Riesling qualifies as semi-sweet. It delivers notes of pear, tangerine, and even a touch of pineapple.
  • Sandeman Founder's Reserve A Port style from one of the most famous estates in Portugal, this is a blend of wines from different vintages, each aged 5 years.