LEOMINSTER, England, June 18 (UPI) -- Sweet wines form a rather small but important part of the wine market. They are excellent with desserts and blue cheeses. Good sweet wines are expensive, and this article will try to explain why this should be so.
Sweet wines were the New World's first success. In the 18th century, Constantia, from Cape Province, South Africa, was widely acknowledged to be the finest wine in the world. Phylloxera, an aphid that lives off the roots of the vine, killed it off in the 19th century, and there are no records of how the wine was made. Sweet wines are being made again at Constantia, but no one can say for sure whether it is made in the same way as in the glory days.
Fermentation turns the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. If there is to be sugar left in the wine, either the juice contains more sugar than the yeast can ferment, or the fermentation has to be stopped.
Wines can be sweetened after fermentation. The addition of unfermented juice is what gives "Liebfraumilch" its sweetness. Many medium-dry and medium wines are made in a similar way, in many countries, but no connoisseur of wine would say that wines made like this have any aspiration to be great wines. They are usually well-made products, aimed at a particular section of the market.
Late harvest wines are made with grapes left on the vine longer than usual. The grapes have extra sugar, but often lower acidity. Riesling is highly prized in Germany for sweet wines because it can get very ripe and still maintain its acidity.
Picking the grapes late means taking a risk with the weather, as well as reducing the yield if things do go well. The maker stands an excellent chance of seeing his year's production as a nasty mess on the ground.
"Auslese" on a German wine label indicates that the grapes were left on the vine for this extra time.
Sometimes the grapes go rotten before picking. Noble rot, "edelfaule" indicates this. German wines normally show this grade as "beerenauslese," while "trockenbeerenauslese" wines are even sweeter. Austria has a similar grading system for its sweet wines with "Ausbruch" as an extra grade in between beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese.
"Eiswein" is normally made from grapes picked and pressed while still frozen in the January following the harvest. This is the most expensive of all. The grapes are pressed while still frozen, often at three in the morning. Most of the water in the juice is frozen so the yield is very low. The juice has high levels of both sugar and acid, giving great concentration of flavor. The fermentation is very slow and produces wines that are both sharp and very sweet. Every wine lover should make an effort to try one.
In the Niagara region of Canada, a similar icewine is made. North American readers may find this easier to obtain. Despite a recent relaxation in the EU's import rules, Canadian icewine is still a rarity in Europe so I have not had chance to try one to compare.
In France, Sauternes, Barsac and Cadillac are famous for sweet white wines made from ripe grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea. What the Germans call edelfaule, the French call pourriture noble. Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc grapes are allowed to ripen in the autumn mist creeping up from the nearby rivers.
As in Germany, the rot leaves the skins semi-porous so that the water in the juice evaporates, concentrating the sugars and the acids. At Château d'Yquem, the most prestigious wine in Sauternes, the juice from one vine makes just half a glass of wine. Château d'Yquem is rather expensive, and visitors to the Château are not allowed to taste, though people who work there are allowed to sample it.
Several late harvest wines are coming out of Alsace, as Vendange Tardive, some with and some without pourriture noble. They are worth searching out. There are particularly fine examples of Riesling, Pinot gris and Gewurztraminer from several growers.
The Loire valley also produces some glorious sweet wines made from the Chenin blanc grape, also with "pourriture noble," in the area around Layon and Bonnezeaux.
Hungary produces a fabulous sweet wine called Tokay. Grapes are grown in the same way as for the German and French sweet wines, but then a paste of the most rotten grapes (Aszú) are added, in units called "puttonyos." Four or five puttonyos are the most popular. Tokay will keep a long time because of the high sugar and high alcohol levels. Tokay was a favorite of the Czars.
Fermentation can be stopped by the addition of brandy while the wine is still sweet. During the Napoleonic period, there was an embargo on French wines imported into Britain, which opened up the British market to Portuguese wines. Unfortunately, at that time, they were not very good. Wine importers found they had a more marketable product if they added brandy after it had been landed in Britain.
They then started asking the captain to add the brandy as it came aboard ship. It was not long before brandy was added to the wine about a week into the fermentation, and port was born.
Ruby port is the young wine. They are fresh, fruity, and represent good value.
In particularly good years, an individual port house can declare a vintage. Not all houses declare the same year. Vintage port is best aged about 20 years.
In the 19th century, the British aristocracy would buy in a supply of port on the Christening of a son and open it on the son's 21st birthday. The best vintage ports have amazing depth of flavor, and need decanting away from the sediment the port has thrown in the bottle.
1977 and 1963 were two of the best vintages still available. If you have patience 1990 is worth keeping in a cool dark place for another few years.
Tawny port has been in barrel for 10, 15, or 20 years. The deposit is left behind in the barrel, so the wine is much less fiddly to serve. It is also considerably cheaper, so is probably better value even though they will not have the concentration of flavor of vintage port.
A Californian winemaker tried making a wine in a similar way to port, but fell afoul of the law regarding the use of the word "port." Port can only be made in Portugal. He lost his case, but now calls his wine Starboard.
White port is made in much the same way but from white grapes. Without the tannins of the red grapes they do not have the same aging potential, but do make rather nice wines.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is made in a similar way in the Rhône valley with Muscat grapes, and so is Muscat de Valencia in Spain.
Banyuls is made in France, on the Mediterranean coast in the village of Collioure right on the Spanish border. Grenache grapes are used to make a red wine, brandy is added to halt the fermentation. All this is like in port production, but then the wine is put in open oak barrels to bake in the sun. The red wine oxidizes to brown, the flavor takes on a sherry-like edge. The French tend to drink it as an apéritif, while the rest of the world treats it as a dessert wine.
Mavrodaphne is made in a similar way to Banyuls in Patras and Cephalonia in Greece. Mavrodaphne is the name of the grape variety used. The Greeks drink it with fresh fruit at the end of a meal. This wine is capable of almost limitless aging. I tried an 1873 Mavrodaphne, which was really wonderful.
Sherry comes from Jerez in southern Spain. The Spanish drink it mainly as dry wine -- manzanilla or fino, amontillado or oloroso. The British had a taste for sweet sherry. A grape variety Pedro Ximénez (PX) was used to make a wine with amazingly high sugar levels to sweeten sherry.
Harveys of Bristol were first in the market with Bristol Cream, a blend of a dark oloroso sherry with PX. Seriously sweet sherry is available with PX the only grape in the wine.
Croft, another British sherry house, then came up with Croft Original, a pale fino sherry sweetened with PX.
(In a future piece I will deal with Sherry, Madeira and Marsala in more detail.)
In Rutherglen, Victoria, Australia, they make a liqueur orange muscat. With no risk of frost, the muscat grapes can be left on the vine until they are almost like raisins. The grapes are then macerated in brandy to release the flavor into the liquor. The wine takes on a complex citrus note, which is where the orange in the name comes from. Wines of different ages are blended together in a version of sherry's solera system for even greater complexity.
There is the potential to produce really interesting sweet wines in California, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Chile. It is only a matter of time before one of the New World wine countries produces a top class sweet wine.
(Geoff Morris can be contacted at: Orchard, Hive & Vine,
6 The Buttercross, Leominster, Herefordshire UK HR6 8BN.