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How do sweet wines become sweet?

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

Nothing brings people together better than sharing a meal or a good bottle of wine. We can’t help with the food, but we can most certainly provide you with some options to enhance the time you have with those you love.

Wine is there to be enjoyed and there are many different types to suit many different palettes. Today, we’re going to talk about sweet wine. You may like a crispy white to accompany your food, or enjoy a robust red as you relax at the end of a hard day, but, at the end of a meal, nothing complements your dessert like a beautiful sweet wine.

Most people regard sweet wine as the sole preserve of white grapes, but that’s not the case. Sweet wines can be both red and white, and you can even get semi-sweet varieties, so let’s take a look at some of them.

It probably won’t come as a huge surprise to you to learn that sweet wines are sweet because of their higher sugar content. The sugar contained within isn’t just there to lighten the taste, but it works to stimulate digestion and to suppress your appetite. It’s for this reason they work so well as a way to finish off a meal, but there’s more to sweet wines than just ‘adding sugar’.

In fact when sugar is added, it’s primarily there to aid fermentation and to raise the level of alcohol in the finished product, not for taste. The yeast used in the fermentation process loves sugar. If all the sugar is allowed to be consumed by the yeast, then you end up with dry wine with a high alcohol content. With sweet (or semi-sweet) wine, the trick is to stop the fermentation process at the right time to get the desired sweetness and a lower alcohol content. A dry wine contains between 0-4 grams of sugar per litre, semi-sweet wines are around 12-45 grams and anything more than that is generally regarded as a sweet wine.

How does sweet wines becomes sweet?

There are a number of ways in which sweet wine gets its taste. This varies by vineyard, by country and by climate. The easiest solution, you may think, is to just add a bag of sugar to the grapes and voila!, but no. This process, known as chaptalisation’, is often frowned upon and many producers consider this to be cheating and therefore it is forbidden in the making of high-quality dessert wines in many wineries.

Late Harvest

Another method used to create sweet wines is to intentionally over ripen the grapes, providing they have enough acidity to balance the levels of sugar. When making sweet, or dessert wine, the grapes are left on the vine as long as possible to increase the sugar content within the grapes themselves. In the Northern hemisphere, harvest can occur as late as November or even early December. Once picked, this residual sugar is preserved and the fermentation process is shortened accordingly. The grapes can also be left until the first frost, then harvested and brought to press. This is how Ice wine is produced. However, waiting for that first freeze is a risky business. If the weather doesn’t cooperate and the grapes don’t freeze, the winery can lose the entire crop.

Noble rot or Botrytis chinerea

Botrytis Chinerea or Noble rot
Botrytis Chinerea or Noble rot

The third method to make sweet wine is rotten, it literally is! There is a fungus that grows on grapes called ‘Botrytis Chinerea’, or, to give it its more pronounceable name, ‘Noble Rot’. It doesn’t sound very appetising we know, but it helps to concentrate the sugars and gives sweet wine a honeyed taste.

In damp areas of the vineyard, the fungus can grow naturally on the skin of the grapes. Over time, the skins become thinner and more porous, which removes some water from the grape. This means the grapes shrivel up, losing some of their mass. The consequence of this is that it takes so many more grapes to create sweet wines this way, so isn’t always viable for smaller wineries. Red grapes tend not to fair too well with Noble rot, but white wines, particularly Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chenin Black produce rich, sweet wines when treated properly.

Let's have a look at a few wines

We hope we’ve managed to whet your appetite when it comes to sweet wine. The next obvious step is to look at some of the best ones.

Ice Wine

Moldova produces a beautiful sweet, ice wine made from the Muscat and Traminer grapes called Bostavan Floare de Dor. It’s a beautiful golden colour that would complement any dinner table.

Purcari Ice Wine is beautifully produced – a duet and a duel between fire and ice, a complex experience, an exciting and challenging wine. It has won numerous awards including a rating of 92.7 at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Semi Sweet Reds

If you never tried a semi-sweet red, then why not go for one from Georgia. Blending two incredible grapes, Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli, the award-winning Khvanchkara 2016 gives smoky wild fruit flavours with just a touch of acidity to balance the sweetness. Kidzmarauli, next to Kvanchakra is another delicious example of semi-sweet Georgian wine. In the images below, both Kidzmarauli and Kvanchkara bottles are both produce by the Maranuli winery.

Botrytis Wine

Fabulous and mouthwatering is the Chardonnay Sweet (Botrytis) by Chateau Vartely. Grapes, ennobled with a touch of noble rot, produced by the Botrytis Chinerea fungus. With over 10 awards this wine is truly remarkable.

A smorgasbord of flavours: golden baked apples, pear, melon and a touch of cinnamon along with the perfect amount of balancing acidity. Luscious yet refreshing, it makes you want another sip.

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