During the holidays, bringing a bottle of something to a gathering is a good way to introduce friends and family to new wines and wine styles. Dessert wines are often misunderstood (and ignored) by most wine drinkers, but they offer a great opportunity for experimenting with something special.
The whole category of sweet wines is very diverse and therefore can be quite complicated. Sweet wines can be low alcohol, fortified, sparkling and anything in between. There are low alcohol sweet wines from late harvested grapes like those from Germany and Alsace; things like Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Sélection de Grains Nobles and Vendange Tardive. There are high alcohol, fortified wines such as Porto and Banyuls. There are sweet wines like Sauternes, Bonnezeaux, Trockenbeerenauslese and Tokaji that are late harvested but also have the unique character of a strange mold called either “Noble Rot” or Botrytis cinerea, which adds a honeyed or beeswax character. And there are many versions of sweet sparkling wines such as Moscato, Demi-Sec Champagne and Brachetto d’Acqui.
The two most important things to understand about sweet wines are the alcohol levels and the balance—sweet versus alcohol versus crispness. Fortified wines are higher in alcohol because of the way they are produced. The wines are not fermented until all the sugars are turned to alcohol, rather the fermentation is stopped by adding a neutral spirit (like a clear brandy). This kills the yeasts and leaves much of the grape sugars in the juice, creating a sweet wine with upwards of 17 percent alcohol. At close to 22 percent alcohol, port is sweet wine with a kick, be careful.
Late harvest white wines fall into a couple of categories, the most famed being two that have different levels of Noble Rot. The sauvignon blanc and sémillon for producing sauternes is picked as much as a full month later than other grapes in Bordeaux. This late picking allows the mists and fogs created by the area’s springs to give that special mold a chance to grow and help shrivel the grapes to make a sweet nectar. The picking is so specific it is sometimes done one grape at a time rather than in full clusters.
The other famed region for these wines is in the Tokaji area of Hungary where mist from a cold river creates the same effect. But in Tokaji the grapes are picked almost at the same time as other grapes and then sorted into the “raisined” ones and those with less Noble Rot. Tokaji has wines of different quality based upon the amount of noble rot grapes added to the dry base; “Puttonyos” refers to the volume of noble rot grapes added. A label reflecting 3 Puttonyos Tokaji is not as rich or sweet as a 6 Puttonyos. The sweetest and rarest Tokaji is called Essencia and is made from only the free-run juice of the noble rot grapes, it is also one of the most expensive wines in the world.
The German styles of dessert wines (including Alsace) can be either just late harvest without the Noble Rot or with it. In Alsace the Sélection de Grains Nobles are infected while Vendange Tardive are sweet from being harvested late. In Germany it is the Trocken in Trockenbeerenauslese that refers to the Noble Rot.
Wines for the Sweet Tooth:
1977 Domaine de la Coume du Roy Maury, Roussillon, France (next to Banyuls)
1993 Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, Château Pajzos, Hungary
1999 Niepoort Colheita Porto, Douro Valley, Portugal
2006 Schloss Reinhartshausen Erbacher Marcobrunn Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese
2009 Château Climens Premier Cru Barsac-Sauternes, Bordeaux