Stephen Jacob (mavjop) wrote,
Stephen Jacob

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Sweet wines, in depth.

I started writing an answer to a question on Yahoo! Answers, and ... ur ... wrote more than I originally intended! I am duplicating my answer here because, well, I spent enough time on it that I'd hate not to get a little more mileage out of it. ;)


I love sweet wines, what would you recommend?

My answer:

Oh, what a perfect question for me. :)

I have a wine cellar with about 150 bottles of wine in it, of which probably upwards of 140 would be considered "sweet wine" by most people.

If I were having a conversation with you, I would ask you some questions to find out what you mean by sweet. Some other answerers mentioned wines in response to your request for ideas on sweet wines which would really more fall into the category of "well, it's fruity" (i.e. not really dry, seems a little sweet, but certainly not really sweet).

If that is what you are looking for, that's fine, but I would encourage you to try a Moscato d'Asti, a lightly sweet and effervescent (very lightly sparkling) wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.

If you mean actually-sweet-really, then I'm the man to ask alright. :) I will attempt to give some hints, but if you want to send me mail to ask me further questions, that's fine.


Moscato d'Asti is the wine which turned me into a fan of wine. It is light, fruity, very slightly sparkling, refreshing, exciting to the palate, and overall really pleasant. It is generally lower in alcohol than other wines (4-6%). It comes from a small region called Piedmont in Italy. It is made from moscato (otherwise known as muscat) grapes, but it is not heavy or /very/ sweet like most people expect from muscats. It is generally fairly cheap. About $10-20 per bottle, with $15 being a pretty common price tag. In the US, Robert Mondavi makes a wine which is similarly priced and very much in the style of Moscato d'Asti (though may not legally be called that). It is called "Moscato d'Oro", and is quite tasty. One of my favourite actual Moscato d'Astis is made by "Dante Rivetti", and is called "Riveto" (yes, 1 t in Riveto, but 2 in Rivetti). "Bera" make one of the cheaper Moscato d'Asti wines, and it is actually *remarkably* good.


Some wineries produce "late harvest" wines from a variety of grapes. These are generally wines where the grapes have been left out on the vine longer than normal, in the hope that they will be infected with a fungus called botrytis (also known as "noble rot"). If it doesn't happen, they have wasted the crop, so they do not normally devote a lot of their grapes to late harvest, and the riskiness of the endeavour makes the wine generally somewhat more expensive. Late harvests can be very good (especially well known are french Sauternes, which can be fantastic, and the best of them, such as Chateau d'Yquem, can be very expensive. There are some very good and reasonably priced late harvest wines available (one such wine is a french wine called Pacherenc du Vic Bilh -- another truly excellent one is a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from "Honig" in Napa Valley, California). There are also, alas, a lot of not very good late harvest wines available. They have become trendy, and a lot of winemakers just don't know what they're doing, or do not themselves appreciate sweet wines and so don't do a good job of it. They can at best like drinking liquid gold, and at worst ... well, not so good. Late harvest wines often have an apricot-like flavour profile.


Rieslings are commonly thought of as just sweet, but that is far from the truth, and a lot of people's experiences with German wines in general and rieslings in particular is from very low-quality "Qualitätswein". Better German wines, those which meet certain standards, get to be labeled, "Qualitätswein mit Pradikat", often abbreviated "QmP". QmP wines come in a variety of classifications: Kabinett (the dryest on the scale; these can be from really very dry to fruity and the tiniest bit sweet, and can be excellent), Spätlese ("late picked"; somewhat sweeter, but still usually not very sweet; they can pair wonderfully well with many foods), Auslese ("picked out" (selected); the best bunches of grapes are chosen; usually somewhat sweeter, but not always sweeter than Spätleses), Beerenauslese ("berries selected"; the best individual berries (grapes) are selected; usually quite sweet, and often outstanding) and Ice Wine (very specific conditions must occur for ice wine to be created, and they are generally quite expensive, and very tasty ... but we'll leave more details for the next section of my answer). QmP wines may be riesling, gewurtztraminer or various other varieties. They're not by any means all alike. 2005 German Rieslings are particularly stunning -- they are wonderful.


Originating in Germany/Austria, Ice Wines are unique in the wine world. Unlike late harvest wines, ice wines are not affected by botrytis. They are, however, left on the vine a lot longer than other wine grapes. Like with late harvest wine production (and moreso), the vineyard owner takes a big risk in attempting to make ice wine as very specific conditions must occur, or (s)he has thrown away his/her crop, thus typically only a small proportion of the vineyard is set aside for this. Because of this, it can be quite expensive (usually $50-100 US). Ice wine is wine that is made from grapes which are picked, brought back to the winery, and crushing is started while they are (naturally, on the vine, or it may not be called ice wine--some producers make fake ice wines by freezing grapes artificially, and they can be quite good, but not as good as the real thing) at or below 7/8 celcius (17/19 fahrenheit) depending on what country it is in. Ice wines are very sweet, but typically have a wonderful acid balance so that they are in fact less cloyingly sweet-seeming than other sweet wines. They can be as good as it gets. Canada is now the world's largest producer of ice wine, because unlike in Germany/Austria where a winemaker might only be able to make an ice wine one or two years in five and have to throw away the crop the other three or four years, in Canada the producers in fact /can/ make ice wine every year. There are some very good ice wines produced in Canada, my favourite coming from a producer called Peller. If you ever get the chance to try Peller's "Dark Horse" ice wine, please do yourself a favour and try it! "Inniskillin" also make fairly good ice wines, but they are not the best, just the biggest producer. There is a producer of ice wine in Washington (state) in the US which makes a very pleasant Chenin Blanc ice wine (the 2002 is mind-bogglingly good, but other years have just been good or very good): Kiona, in the Red Mountain wine-growing region. Their ice wine is much cheaper than most, at around the $20/bottle mark. "Ste. Chapelle" in, of all places, Idaho, make quite good ice wines priced at below $15 per bottle, and they can even be bought at Costco in Washington and Idaho.


Port is a wonderful, often sweet but not always sweet, fortified wine from the Douro wine-growing region of Portugal. It is made from up to 5 different grape varietals. You may be vaguely familiar with ruby and tawny ports. All ports more or less fit into one of three categories: Ruby, Tawny or White.

Ruby ports include simple/cheap ones labelled simply as "ruby", LBV (late-bottled vintage) and vintage (generally the most expensive) ports. Simple ruby ports can be quite pleasant to drink, but are generally very young. LBVs are port from a specific year which did not qualify for "Vintage" status, but which has been aged in casks for a couple of years and bottled at the point where it has a character somewhat reminiscent of a vintage port. Both normal rubies and LBVs should be drunk reasonably soon after bottling. "Vintage Port", on the other hand, may be aged for decades. It is bottled after only about 18 months in vats, is bottled *unfiltered*, and continued to age, very slowly, in the bottle, with only air exchange very, very slowly through the cork. Vintage port can be stunningly good (1963 and 1977 are particularly excellent years, and Graham's 1977 Vintage Port is absolutely fantastic, however you can expect to pay $25-30 for a *glass*, if you can find it, and unfortunately most restaurants don't understand how to properly treat it, so you may be unimpressed when you try it.

Tawny ports include "tawny", "fine tawny", "colheita" and tawnies with indication of age (10, 20, 30, 40, ... years). Tawnies, with the exception of Colheitas, are made from a blend of wines from various different years. The wine is stored in wooden barrels (not vats), which allow a lot of oxygen into the wine, right up until it is blended and bottled. Tawnies do not age in the bottle and should be drunk as soon as possible. Colheitas are the least well-known, and are the odd-one-out in the tawny world, because they are from a single vintage (year; not to be confused with "Vintage Port", though Colheitas in the tawny family are roughly the equivalent of vintage port in the ruby family). In my opinion, "Krohn" (a much under-rated port producer) makes some of the best tawnies, and especially Colheitas. Krohn 1958 Colheita never fails to blow my mind. It is around $100 a bottle, and in my opinion is REALLY cheap at the price. Most years (perhaps every year), they will do a bottling. Colheitas will specifically have 2 years marked on the bottle. The vintage (e.g. 1958) and the year of bottling (e.g. 2005). If the year of bottling is more than a year ago, I recommend not buying it, as they really ought to be drunk within 12-18 months of bottling to be at their best. The interesting thing to note is that each year, the wine has been in cask (barrel) a year longer, and thus is probably even *better* than the previous year. They will keep bottling until it runs out. There's not a lot to say about wines simply labeled "tawny" or "fine tawny". They are a blend of years, all barrel-aged, but they are not very old. The average can be between 3 years (which would generally be labeled "tawny") and ... anything below 10 years (towards the upper end is likely to be labeled "fine tawny"). Other than Colheitas, the best tawnies are blends of different years where the average age (by volume) of the wine is over 10 years. Since they may only be labeled in increments of 10 (10 year, 20 year, 30 year, etc.), most tawny ports with indication of age will be not too much above the indicated age, but occasionally one finds one which is a lot more than the minimum, and if one knows this (it is not something you'll easily find out), they can be a bargain. For example, Warre's Otima 10 year tawny is (or was in roughly 2004) in fact an average age of *17* years. Thus, you were paying a 10-year-tawny price for a much better wine. They did this because they sell it in a clear bottle and really wanted a rich tawny (brown) colour. Graham's, Taylor and Fonseca also make excellent tawny ports.

White ports include some VERY dry, and everything up to very sweet (called "Lagrima", which means "tears", which are suggested by the unctuous trails left by the wine on the sides of the glass when swirled). In Portugal, people often drink a cocktail of a very dry white port and tonic water as an aperitif.

I hope this excessively long answer provides you a lot of useful information, and feel free to contact me if you have further questions.

Source(s): (really resources for them, not sources for me; all I wrote is from the stuff in my head)

My obsession with dessert wines; especially ice wines and ports.
Tags: wine

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