Like photosynthesis, which gives us air to breath, fermentation is one of those simple, yet marvelous chemical processes – a natural miracle one might say, which brings us, in one of its interpretations, a gift of life. Or at least a gift of a better life. Wine.
The juice of grapes (or any fruit for that matter) is exposed to yeasts. Yeasts, which occur in plentitude in nature, have a bit of a sweet tooth – sugar is what they thrive on and grapes offer an abundance of it. While chomping on all this sweetness, yeasts convert sugars into alcohol releasing heat and carbon dioxide as byproducts. The more sugar gets devoured, the higher alcohol level in the resulting juice. It’s as simple as that.
Then, we humans intervene, with all that knowledge and technology, clarifying, fining, stabilizing, racking, and aging until that fermented goodness is bottled. And we all know what happens after: swirling, sniffing, smacking of the lips, dancing, hollering, and praising of the gods. And it’s all because of the fermented grape juice. Hilarious.
Human use of nature, or rather the manipulation of it, is exemplified at its best in the making of sweet wines. These wines are often a product of counterintuitive wine making techniques; from exposure to extreme temperatures to taming of a grape-rotting fungus, intentional oxidation and dehydration of grapes, or the manipulation of the fermentation process to achieve desired sweetness levels in wines.
These days, when the obsession with “natural wines,” which taste of dirt, strive for “balance” and are “driven” by terroir, dominates the wine culture, the decadent nature of sweet wines isn’t given much attention or deserved respect.
In wine’s historic infancy, the sweet versions were the preferred choice. In 40 BC, Cleopatra’s favorite wine in ancient Greece was the sweet Muscat of Alexandria. In the 1600, the most desired wines of the day were sweet white wines; Sauternes of Bordeaux, German Rieslings, and Hungarian Tokaji. Because of primitive and “uneducated” wine making practices, the dry wines were often imbalanced, harsh, and unpalatable. There was neither fermentation temperature control nor anti-oxidative substances available.
Our focus here will be only wines in which the sugar occurs naturally, coming from the grapes and the grapes alone, rather than artificially added by a wine maker through the process chaptalization.
Let’s start with some fizz. Champagne, which most of us know in its dry version has also sweet expressions: Demi-Sec and Doux labeled Champagnes should not be ignored. They have place in our culinary lives and are enticing pairings for variety of lighter desserts and cheeses. A little more frivolous are two lightly effervescent wines from Italian region of Piedmont: Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui. The first made from Muscat grape, the latter from a red Brachetto. Both are charmingly aromatic with a touch of tingle on the palate.
Noble rot wines. Botrytis Cinerea is the Latin name for a microscopic fungus that sometimes occurs in vineyards. It requires damp, humid conditions that usually aren’t beneficial to normal wine production. Ruinous to other fruits and grapes not intended for sweet wines, if supervised accordingly, noble rot removes water from grape berries concentrating the sugar’s content, acids, and other minerals, resulting in decadently sweet wines reminiscent of honeysuckle, ginger-spiced quince, marzipanned, dry apricots. You find these wines in French regions of Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac, Monbazillac, as well as in Hungary’s Tokaji area.
Tokaji is one of the oldest and the first demarcated wine region. Made from indigenous grapes of Furmint and Harslevelu, the wines have legendary age-ability, especially in their sweetest form. Its sweetest version is called essencia. It is arguably the richest and rarest of all sweet wines. Typically it takes 6 to 8 years to ferment. Its alcohol level is usually less than 3% with 85% residual sugar. Traditionally a tiny amount of essencia is served on a crystal spoon.
Ice Wine. Rare, expensive, and very sweet. Occasionally, in cold climate wine regions like Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and some northern parts of US, the freezing temperatures will invade the vineyards while the grape bunches are intentionally left hanging on the vines. Water, which constitutes a big part of grape juice, freezes turning into ice. Removing the ice from the frozen berries leaves the wine maker with all that undiluted sweetness that fermented into wine gives us: rich, syrupy nectar. German Eiswein is the best known in this category.
Fortified wines. Alcohol levels above 17 percent kill yeasts. That’s why naturally fermented wines cannot go above that number. Fortified wines are a broad category wherein the fermentation is halted by adding high alcohol spirit, usually a local brandy, disabling the yeasts and retaining some residual sugar. The result is wines of varied degrees of sweetness and spiked alcohol level around 20 percent.
Fortified wines are known for their legendary age-ability. I was once offered a glass of Madeira from the 1850s. It was exquisite.
Madeira. This is my favorite fortified wine category. Because of its unique vinification, at its best, Madeira wines offer exotic flavors of toasted nuts, chestnuts, spiced figs and intriguing salinity of the ocean breeze. Historically, during the exploratory colonial voyages of 17th and 18th centuries, the island of Madeira was an important connecting point for ships on the way to the Americas and the Indies. Barrels of wine, kept under the decks of sail ships, were exposed to dramatic temperature fluctuations of various climate zones. These conditions caused oxidation of wine. To prevent the spoilage, wines were fortified with brandy and the nutty flavors of oxidation added to the wine’s appeal. Nowadays, Madeira wines are still intentionally heated up to promote oxidation. Rather than storing it under the decks of ships, the process is conducted in specially designated warehouses called Estufas. The addition of high ABV brandy preserves the wines and allows the wine maker to regulate levels of sweetness. There are four classic Madeira wines named after the grape varieties, from the least sweet to the sweetest: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia (aka Malmsey).
It was with Madeira that the founding fathers of the United States of America toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
Port wines come from the region of Duoro in Northern Portugal. The city of Porto, the second largest in Portugal, is the spiritual center of the wine. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz are the three main, local grapes used in its production. Historically, Port wines were dry with small amounts of a local brandy added for stability prior to its shipment abroad. England has always been Port’s biggest market. Inadvertently the added spirit allowed and preserved the wine’s sugar, which is how the modern version of sweet Port was born.
Our sense of taste is a rather primitive tool. Our palates can recognize only 5 sensations: salty, sour, bitter, umami, and sweet. It is our olfactory receptors that allow us to experience the world of flavors at its nearly limitless complexity. The human nose has roughly 400 types of scent receptors that can detect at least 1 trillion different odors. A peach doesn’t taste like peach; rather it smells like one. The only tastes in peach you detect are its sweetness, tartness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami – if any.
Vin Doux Naturel. Even though labeled with a French name, these fortified wines are not geographically bound and can come from anywhere in the world. There is a Grenache grape-based Banyuls wine from the Southern French region of Languedoc, Perfumy Orange Muscat wines from Italy or Rutherglen Muscat from Australia and let’s not forget about the seductively decadent Mavrodaphni from Greece.
Straw wines, raisin wines or, as the French call them, Vin de Paille. The wines in this extremely broad category are made from grapes dehydrated (raisinated) by drying them in the direct contact with sun heat, either by leaving them on the vines or traditionally laid out on straw mats (paille). These wines are geographically ubiquitous and aren’t limited to specific grape varieties. Italian Vin Santo, Spanish Pedro Ximenez, German Strohwein, Austrian Schilfwein, and most notable, the French Vin de Paille from the Jura region, all offer unique flavors reflective of their origins, yet sharing in their scrumptious sweetness.
These are just some of my favorite wines in vast family of sweet wines. Don’t hesitate to explore others. In this time and age, when sugar or anything that bears any trace of sweetness has become our nutritional public enemy number one, sweet wines fell victim of this persecution as well.
As a restaurant professional for over 25 years I’ve noticed a dramatic decline in dessert and sweet wine consumption. Yet, rich or poor, regardless of our culture, creed, race, or geographic location, traditionally our meals, especially the final one of the day, whether we call it dinner or supper, has always culminated with … something sweet. As if subliminally we choose to finish the toils of our everyday lives on a pleasant note.
No matter how brain washed we may be by our weight loss influencer or the superficial, social expectations, sweet fills us with joy, sooths our existentially bruised souls and promises better days to come.
So next time while dining out, when someone offers you a glass of sumptuous Sauternes with a wedge of blue cheese or Brachetto d’Aqui with raspberry chocolate mousse, set aside your reservations and dive in. And remember: human longevity is comically irrelative and cosmically irrelevant, but life’s spontaneous intensity is irreplaceable.