In our humble opinion, sweet white wine is a gift from Dionysus to bring sheer pleasure to our lives! Sweet white wines are wonderfully versatile, with balanced acidity, some minerality, and magnificent complexity, and offer some of the most hedonic drinking experiences available to wine lovers. Some of the most famous food and wine pairings in the world include a sweet wine: Sauternes and foie gras, Stilton and Tokaji, and apple tart and a sweet Chenin Blanc (just to name a few.) If you haven’t dived into this world of wonder, we highly suggest you do.
The scientific answer is rather more prosaic: sweet white wines are white wines with more residual sugar. The sugar content comes from the grapes, and winemakers use various methods to achieve this.
The most world-renowned example of a method used to make sweet white wine is less a method, and more a lucky trick of the elements. Hailing from the vineyards of Bordeaux, we have Sauternes, a full-bodied, sweet white wine that can age for decades. Luck would have it that in Sauternais, a thick mist fogs the vineyards at night, causing a type of fungus called Botrytis – more well known as ‘Noble Rot’. In the golden hours of sunlight, the grapes dry out just enough to keep this intrusive visitor from causing irreparable damage. Noble Rot dehydrates the grapes and leaves behind more sugars, intensifying the sweetness and adding complexity and concentration. This fungus is also known to grow on Riesling. By allowing Noble Rot to thrive, winemakers can expect notes of honey, caramel, beeswax and candied citrus.
Mostly, sweet white wines are the product of a late harvest. Late harvest wines are made from grapes that have been left to relax on the vine for a while after they’ve reached their peak ripeness (think raisins). The longer the grapes are left to hang on the vine, the more acids turn into sugar. This gives the wine deeper, fuller and more opulent flavours. In late harvest Rieslings for instance, complex flavours such as ginger and jasmine emerge against a backdrop of apricots and pineapple.
If you’re looking to try some sweet white wines, here are some other superb examples:
- Spätlese Riesling (Germany)
- Vendage Tardive (Alsace)
- Vin Santo (Italy)
- Muscat of Samos (Greece)
- Tokaji (Hungary)
The rarest (and often most expensive!) sweet white wine is Ice Wine (or Eiswein). The hefty price tag is due to a miraculous feat of courage that also completely depends on the weather. It only occurs when a vineyard freezes over. If and when the grapes have completely frozen, on-call teams rush into gruelling conditions to pick the grapes in the middle of the night. The grapes are immediately sent to press to retain the flavour. Eiswein is normally made with Riesling and this wild phenomenon began in Germany and Austria (sadly global warming has led to drastically reduced production here) and is now very popular in Canada. The resultant wines have a special purity you simply don’t find in anything else!