Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching and you may be struggling to sort your beloved a beautiful present that he or she will really appreciate…so what about an original and naturally sweet gift for this year? I’m talking about wine of course: sweet wine. With the excuse of this romantic occasion I am going to discuss a bit the best dessert wines for the joy of all wine lovers with a sweet tooth (exactly like me).
Sweet wines can be authentic grape nectars, harmonious and rich, and can offer you an endless explosion of aromas and flavors and a pure moment of pleasure that may, at times, even completely replace the need of a dessert. These wines, despite presenting different colors and qualities, all share the same characteristic; they fully express the spirit of the grape through its sweetness and enchanting aromas.
Here is a selection of the best dessert wines, divided per style and production method that I will discuss in details below.
How Dessert Wines are Made
The production of dessert wines requires great dedication to quality and strict controls that begin in the vineyard and end in the bottle which is often the reason of their higher prices.
As you know, the alcohol in wine is produced by the fermentation of sugars made by yeasts. So, the amount of sugar present in the must determines the amount of alcohol produced at the end of fermentation and, to be a bit more technical, to obtain 1% alcohol, around 17.5 grams of sugar per liter are required. Therefore, in a dessert wine the sweetness is a result of the amount of unfermented sugar that is obviously much higher than in a dry wine.
There are several ways to produce a sweet wine; each of these results in extremely different qualitative styles.
1. Addition of sugar or concentrated must
This is the easiest method, but also the most controversial and certainly the least quality oriented. Basically it consists in sweetening a dry wine produced with the normal oenological practices. This method is forbidden in many countries and even in countries where it is permitted, adding sugar to a dry wine is never practiced by quality producers, because the result is rather scarce and the “trick” is easily recognizable.
In the finest and best quality sweet wines, sugar is never added, not even in the form of concentrated must, and the effort of the producers is to make the most of the natural ripeness of the grapes and the sugar concentration in the berries.
2. Botrytis Cinerea
Among all the techniques to produce dessert wines this is certainly the most prestigious because the action of this rot is not limited to the decrease of the amount of water in the berry, but it brings extraordinary changes that give the wine elegant and complex aromas and an absolutely unique taste. When the spores of this noble rot attack the skin of grapes, they enter the berries in search of the nourishment needed for their development. This favors the evaporation of water with the result of concentrating the juice. Once inside the berry, the noble rot adds its flavors and aromas to the grape juice – as well as other components – that transform the sweet juice into divine nectar. The development of Botrytis Cinerea needs particular environmental conditions; humidity in the morning to allow the growth of mold, sunny and dry afternoons to prevent its excessive development and the grape skin must be thin enough to allow penetration inside the berry. Among the sweet wines produced with this method are: Sauternes, Barsac, Tokaji Aszú, Monbazillac, the Alsatian Sélection de Grains Nobles and the German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
3. Late harvest
It’s easy to understand that the riper the grapes, the higher the amount of sugar. So, if you allow the grapes to carry on with maturation – a condition known as over-ripening – the berry begins to wither due to the loss of water with the result of having a more dense and concentrated juice and a greater amount of sugar per liter. The use of grapes harvested later than normally to let them over-ripen naturally on the plant is very common in the production of sweet wines all over the world.
In cold climate countries, such as Germany, Austria and Canada, it is common use to late harvest when the temperature goes largely under 0 (around -8°C) and the bunches get frozen. The grapes are immediately crushed and the must obtained has high concentrations of sugar and acids, while the water, frozen inside the berry, cannot be extracted.
5. Straw wine
Another method for preserving grape sugar is that traditionally used in Italy where harvested grapes are arranged in racks or hung under the sun or in appropriate aerated rooms to let them dry and shrink. This system produces – among many – the Vin Santo, the Recioto di Soave and Valpolicella and the famous Passito di Pantelleria.
6. Alcohol addition
Alternatively the fermentation can be stopped by adding a certain amount of alcohol or brandy to the must, therefore preserving the sugar fermented as residual. This is the method used for the famous Vin Doux Naturels French – such as Banyuls – and many sweet fortified wines such as Port.
And Finally Here is My Selection of the Best Dessert Wines
About the wine: This is an exception to the methods explained above as the fermentation is stopped by cooling the must and leaving a low alcohol content (5,5%). This wine shows a delicate nose of pink grapefruit and mandarin. In the mouth it reminds flavors of toffee apple and rhubarb crumble, with a gentle spritzy fizz and a juicy raspberry finish.
Best with: Fruit salads, delicate strawberry cheesecakes or as aperitif at brunch.
Badia a Coltibuono Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice 2004, Italy
About the wine: The Occhio di Pernice is the red variant of the Tuscan Vin Santo del Chianti, which is generally made from Trebbiano and Malvasia. In this case the wine is made with Sangiovese, from a selection of the oldest vines from the best hillside vineyards. The wine has an intense amber color, with bright reflections turning to garnet. Its nose is dense, warm and complex, with a perfectly calibrated alcohol and aromas of raisins, dried figs with almonds, citron and candied orange peel, black cherry, hints of rhubarb and herbs. In the mouth it’s rich and silky, but very fresh and absolutely balanced. A small masterpiece of wine.
Best with: Cantuccini as for Tuscan tradition but also with dried fruit desserts or with a good book and some relaxing music.
Dearest Late Harvest Chardonnay 2010, California
About the wine: A promising nose of butterscotch, fig, mango and candied apple. In the mouth, the apple, the butterscotch and the mango flavors come back dominating this luscious dessert wine with a surprising balanced acidity and delicate alcoholic warmth. A long aftertaste.
Best with: Blue cheese, crème brulee, as well as fruit pies and tarts.
Chateau Coutet Sauternes Barsac 2009, France
About the wine: Fresh and vibrant with aromas of white flowers, citrus, honey and vanilla that develop over time with the appearance of spices and candied fruit. A great wine produced by an historic producer.
Best with: Foie Gras, blue cheese, crème brulee and crème caramel
Chapoutier Banyuls 2012, France
About the wine: The nose is filled with dried fruits, orange peel and black pepper. In the mouth, it is rich and layered with dried plum, baking spices and dark chocolate flavors. Exceptionally age-worthy.
Best with: red fruit or chocolate desserts
Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2012, Canada
About the wine: This nectar coming directly from the Niagara peninsula in Canada has aromatic notes of fresh orange, sweet spices, lemon and lime. On the palate it’s rich and elegant with concentrated flavors of stone fruit and a hint of clove. Its vibrant acidity is perfectly balanced by a great texture.
Best with: lemon or lime meringue pie.
Donnafugata Ben Rye 2012, Italy
About the wine: This wine produced on the windy shores of the island of Pantelleria has an ample and round bouquet with aromas of apricots and candied orange peel on a background of aromatic herbs. On the palate, it’s luscious but well balanced by a crisp acidity and an amazing length.
Best with: bread and butter pudding or fruit crumble