The mofo guide to | Sweet wines
Sugar in wine is often misunderstood - sweet wines are bigger and broader than we give them credit for, and there’s plenty of delicious stuff to discover. Plus they can be a hugely versatile ally when you’re looking at pairing options for sweeter dishes (or salty and spicy too).
The types of sweet wine, and what to expect
There’s a whole scale of sweetness depending on how much residual sugar (you’ll sometimes see this on label as “RS”) is left after the wine has been blended and bottled, from “off-dry” (a slight hint of sweetness) through to “luscious” (past “very sweet” - we’re talking nectar, almost honey-sweet here). Bottom to top, it runs something like this:
Dry: Little to no residual sugar, with a mostly non-sweet taste - most wines sit in and around this category
Off-dry: A hint of sweetness due to a small amount of residual sugar, but balanced with acidity. Premium examples of Champagne, Loire Valley chenin blanc and German rieslings can frequently be found in this category, as can your off-the-shelf, non-premium goon.
Sweet wine: It’s a noticeable sweetness - think something like a Late Harvest semillon
Very sweet: A wine with a pronounced and distinctively sweet taste due to a significant amount of residual sugar - think a Noble Rot influenced semillon (more on this later)
Luscious: Rich and indulgent wine with a luxurious texture and a high level of sweetness, concentrated flavors and a smooth mouthfeel - think Rutherglen fortified muscat
Tip - most table wines are going to sit around dry or off-dry, with sweet to luscious wines typically offered in smaller format bottles (though, as ever, there’s always exceptions).
How sweet wine is made
There’s a few different ways to make a wine sweet - and (sound the obvious klaxon) the winemaking method used is going to heavily determine that level of sugar and how that sweetness integrates with the rest of the wine.
Broadly you’ll find sweet wines being made in three ways, either;
Making sure there’s lots of sugar in the grapes to begin with, so there’s likely to be some left after fermentation (we’ll call these “concentrated” methods)
Adding grape sugars to the wine in the final blend before bottling (“addition” methods)
Stopping the fermentation before the yeast has had chance to convert all of that sugar into alcohol (not a technical term, but think about them as “stop, I want sugar” methods)
A lot of different words to describe what we’ll simply call “letting the grapes dry out for a bit”.
The aim here is to let the grapes effectively begin to raisin out after harvest - getting rid of some of the water in the berries to concentrate the sugars and flavours so when the fruit is crushed, it’ll have more g/L of sugar in the must to be fermented. The resulting wines often carry some of this rich, raisin flavour too.
In the Veneto region of Italy this is famously done by laying the grapes out on straw racks after harvest, though some Australian winemakers have introduced the term “cane cut” on labels to describe a technique where a part of the vine is harvested along with the grapes too. The French “passilerage” method can either be done by drying the grapes after harvest, or letting them dry out on the vine before picking (aka Late Harvest). Depending on the length of time the grapes have been left to dry, the final wine could be dry, off-dry or sweet, depending on the winemaking.
As grapes ripen, the sugar levels increase - picking them later means you’ll have more sugar in the berries, and “late harvest” on a bottle label typically means that the grapes have been left on the vine for as long as possible in order to develop those sugars and flavours - and so you’ll frequently find these wines tasting like dried stone fruits or tropical fruits, with a rich and full mouthfeel.
This is where “late harvest” starts to get silly. In some countries far from the equator where wine is made it’s possible to leave the grapes on the vine into late Autumn/early Winter to freeze on the vine, before picking and then crushing. The ice gets left in the press, and the free run juice that comes off is full of sugar - similar to when you suck the syrup from a Zooper Dooper and the ice pole gets left in the packet. There’s purity here, and also elegance in the final wines too. And if you don’t want to risk leaving your harvest into the winter, it’s also possible (but less romantic) to replicate this by freezing harvested grapes in the winery.
If you see “noble rot” or “botrytised” on a label to describe a sweet wine, it means one thing - fungus had fun here. The fungus, “botrytis cinerea”, isn’t often welcome - it’s also known as “grey rot” and can knock-out whole harvests. But, when the conditions are right, those little furry guys can aid in the production of some knock-out wines. A grape-grower needs two things on their side to harness the power of the grey fuzz - humid, misty mornings and warm dry afternoons. Those mornings encourage the fungus to develop and eat away little holes in the grape skin, and in those dry afternoons the fungus retreats and water evaporates from the grapes. Expect to find flavours of honey, apricot and citrus zest in these wines, plus some more developed and unique flavours imparted by this “noble rot”.
A charmingly named syrup called “Rectified Concentrated Grape Must” (RCGM) is often added to cask wines (read - goon) after fermentation to sweeten them up - and if that’s your thing, we’re not here to judge. Well, maybe a little.
In Germany though, winemakers often employ something called “süssreserve” (literally “sweet reserve”), which is unfermented grape juice back blended into a dry wine before it's bottled.
And what about Champagne? In traditional method sparkling, sugar is often added in the form of dosage following its second ferment to balance out the acidity, or to make it into a sweeter style - see, told you we weren’t here to judge.
“Stop, I want sugar” methods
Here’s where the winemaker stops the fermentation before all of that sugar can be converted into alcohol, and there’s a couple of different ways it can be done - the main ones being:
Adding SO2 and chilling down
Sulphur dioxide can stop the yeast from doing the job it was born to do (turn sugar into alcohol), and swings the executioner's axe if added in high enough levels. Alternatively, chilling the ferment below 6C stops those little guys too, and once they’re filtered off you’re left with a wine that should have some sugar left, plus a lower level of alcohol (because the yeast was stopped before the job was done). Wines like Moscato d’Asti follow a process similar to this, as do some sweeter rieslings.
Alternatively the yeast can be sent on their merry way to yeasty nirvana by being given a huge dose of neutral spirit, which is key to the production of fortified wines - notable port, sherry and fortified muscats. The level of sugar in the final wines will be determined by when this spirit gets added to stop the ferment, and subsequently these wines will also have a higher percentage alcohol too.
What temperature should I serve sweet wines at?
Light sweet wines are great chilled; 7-10C is the window where you’ll see them at their best (think at least a few hours in the fridge), and ice wines can even go a bit cooler too. For something heavier, stickier and redder like a port, room temperature (around 18C) is great.
What foods pair with sweet wines?
They’re frequently grouped into the “dessert” wine category for a reason - they’re perfect for matching with dishes where you’ve got a lot of sugar going on too. But the best part about pairing wines is also finding those contrasting harmonies too - think sweet and salty, like port with blue cheese and figs. Sweet wines are also very adept at dealing with chilli heat too - so also don’t be afraid to pair them with some spicy stuff too, particularly Vietnamese or Thai style chilli.
When should I be drinking sweet wines?
As always - whenever and wherever you enjoy them best. They’re always great to accompany dessert at the end of the evening, or on a lazy Sunday arvo with a cheeseboard and mates. But remember - it’s a broad category, and those off-dry, fruity light numbers are great for picnics at the park or summers on the beach too, or as a versatile and adaptable BYO option.
Thirsty for something sweet? Shop our latest sweet & fortified wines here.