Ok, I admit it, I’ve got a seriously sweet tooth, and nothing tickles my fancy at the end of a meal quite like a rich, absorbing and deliciously sticky dessert wine. Whether you pair yours with pudding, balance it with a powerful blue cheese or just zone in on the complex golden loveliness in the glass (as I tend to), if you’re a fan of dessert wines, you’re all right by me.
Let’s take a look at some of the different types of sweeties and count the ways we love them…
Top of the pile are of course the ultra complex botrytized sweet wines, where rare and highly temperamental climactic conditions bring about ‘noble rot’ – actually an air-born fungus called Botrytis cinerea – on ripe, unpicked grapes. I tip my hat to whomever it was who first decided to make wine from these wrinkled, mouldy grapes, because frankly, they look revolting. What happens is that the air-born fungus (which tends to drift in on early-morning mists) attacks the ripe grapes and withers them on the vine, shrinking and drying them by thinning the skins, encouraging water to evaporate and concentrating the sugars and acids. It leaves them looking really funky (see pic), but also holding the potential to make some of the most rewarding of all wines.
The ‘great’ botrytized wines are of course the luscious and world famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Tokaji, two wines that have been held in reverence the world over for hundreds of years. Characterised by great complexity and depth, good examples of these wines show powerful sweetness and acidity, all exquisitely balanced with an endless variety of citrus, apricot, honey, mineral (especially in Tokaji, where the volcanic soil adds an extra layer of loveliness), vegetal and, well, just heavenly tastes and aromas. They may be really hard work to make (hence the expense), but let’s be thankful for those winemakers who can, and do, take the trouble to.
Other botrytized wines of note include Monbazillac from nearby Bergerac in Southwest France, which is made in similar ways to Sauternes from botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, but with a higher proportion of Muscadelle grapes giving it a more ‘grapey’ character. From the Loire valley we have the extraordinarily long-lived Coteaux du Layon wines, made from Chenin-Blanc grapes, while over in Germany, the famously rare botrytized Rieslings of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (no, I can’t pronounce them either) are a mouth-watering treat – if you can find any. Nearby you find the Sélection de Grains Nobles of Alsace (which basically translates as ‘the selection of noble berries’, hinting at the time-consuming work involved in hand-harvesting rotten grapes) and in Italy, the opulent and again rare muffato wines from Orvieto in Umbria.
However, if you’re a confirmed sweetie lover, you’ll know we don’t need all that ‘noble rot’ rot to have a good time. There are plenty of other really rather wonderful dessert wines out there (and some pretty bad ones, be warned!) that, while they may not have the depth and complexity of their botrytized cousins, can offer up myriad honeyed charms at a fraction of the cost.
One particularly noteworthy and oft-overlooked sweetie that I return to again and again is the lovely Maury from France’s Rousillon region. Both red and white wines are made here – in the gently fortified vins doux naturels style such as Riversaltes (where the sweet muscat grape reigns supreme) and Banyuls – although it’s the reds you mostly see. Made predominantly from Grenache Noir grapes and often aged in oak before bottling, these sumptuous reds are perfect from the fridge, offering wonderful earthy complexity behind the luscious sweet fruit. Pair one with a gooey chocolatey pudding and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Guaranteed.
Not far from Roussillon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, another lovely sweetie can be found. Jurançon is a commune in Southwest France that produces both dry and sweet wines from the local Manseng and Courbu grape varieties. The dry wines are very pleasant, but the sweet ones are just wonderful, full of luscious honeyed opulence and, in the best examples, delicious tropical fruit nuances with a splash of minerally freshness. A cold glass of Jurançon makes a cracking 5 o’clock wine, especially if you missed a little afternoon treat and fancy something sweet before the day ends.
But probably one of the sweetest and most joyful dessert wines is Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in the northwest of Italy. With its fine moussey bubbles, easy-going low alcohol and lovely mouth-watering orange blossom flavours, a good Moscato can be a thing of delicious beauty and unbridled pleasure. It tends to come into its own on summer days/nights, as it makes such a hedonistic partner for fresh fruits (or fruit tarts, meringues, cakes, etc). Of course, it can just be a blissfully easy and cheeky little dessert on its own too. I doubt you’d hear any complaints.
Other sweet wines of note include the wonderful ‘straw’ wines: those made from grapes that are left to raisin in the sun (usually on straw mats) after picking. Although the Italians have really perfected this style of winemaking, the king of them all is probably Pedro Ximénez from Jerez in Spain. Known as vinos de pasas, the Spanish make tremendous dessert wines in this style, with the rich, dark and luxurious PX being the most intense. In fact, wines made solely from this grape in the sherry solera style are often too much for even me to sip cordially, but pour some over ice cream and I’m in sweet treat heaven. In Spain’s La Mancha region, you also find wonderful sweeties made from raisined Moscatel Morisco grapes, the best examples of these having a real botrytis-like zestiness and complexity.
Lastly, there are the super concentrated (and über-expensive) ice wines, or Eiswein’s, from cold places like Canada and Germany, where the grapes are harvested while still frozen on the vine so all the water is crystallised and only the grapes’ sugary core is extracted. And while I don’t wish to overlook the New World completely (for there are some very interesting sweet wines being produced there too – for instance, the ever-popular Rutherglen Muscat from Australia, a delightfully intense, raisiny number that always goes down well with a mince pie (or three) – that feels like another post altogether.
Yes, I’m sure I’ve overlooked plenty, but my wine journey isn’t over yet and I know I’ve many more pleasures to discover. The point is, I’m proud of my sweet afflictions and I urge you to indulge yours if you feel the same. There are a lot of wines out there (and wine people) getting bogged down in the seriousness of studious appreciation. Sometimes you’ve just got to let indulgence take you for a ride. So sit back, grab a sweetie and give those tired taste buds a treat. Cheers!