The vast majority of sweet wines are made with white grapes, but there are several absolutely great red ones.
Late Harvest Wines
Late harvest wines are made from grapes that are left on their vines even after they’ve fully ripened. They become sweeter as the grape dehydrates and the sugar content becomes more concentrated. Late harvest grapes yield wine that contain both higher residual sugar and higher potential alcohol than standard table wines. Some of these grapes get Botrytis Cinerea, or noble rot a mold that causes grapes to lose nearly all of their water content, this is a major factor in Sauternes.
Strohwein or Schilfwein is an Austrian wine term in the Prädikatswein category which designates a straw wine, a sweet dessert wine made from raisin-like dried grapes. Stroh is German for straw, while Schilf means reed.
BA / TBA Riesling (8%-10% ABV) & Ice (Eiswein) Wine (Riesling) (6% ABV)
Vidal Blanc Ice Wine (8-13% ABV)
Vidal Blanc (aka Vidal) is a grape variety that is a hybrid species of European grapes crossed with American ones. It is a very cold hardy white grape that makes popular late harvest wines. The grapes are often left on the vine through winter’s first freeze and then handpicked small berry by small berry. The wine has intense aromas of dried pear, vanilla, beeswax, and orange marmalade. Wines taste rich and concentrated, exhibiting crisp flavors of orange peel on the finish.
The grape is widely grown across the US from upstate New York to Minnesota and it is also a very important variety in Canada. Inniskillin located in Ontario Canada is the largest producer.
Late harvest Vidal Blanc wines pair well with apricot macaroons or intense flavor cheese, salty nuts or stone fruit desserts.
Sauternes (13% ABV)
Sauternes [saw-turn] is a wine style named after a region in Bordeaux called Sauternes [Soh-tern]. It is a blend of mostly Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and sometimes Muscadelle grapes. The Sauternes region near to a particularly foggy section of the Garonne river. The fog covers the vineyards and causes the grapes to be infected with a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea , aka “noble rot”, which is a mold that causes grapes to lose nearly all of their water content concentrating the sugars. Five communes make up the Sauternes region: Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. Barsac but wines can also be labelled under the Barsac appellation. Sauternes must have an alcohol level of at least 13%. Their full sweetness is balanced with a touch of acidity and golden fruit like lemon curd, peaches, apricots & pineapples drizzled in honey. An almond nutty flavor gives way to a finish that lasts for up to a few minutes. Pair it with soft cheeses like brie and rich, tender veal, foie gras, washed rind cheese, or a soft, nutty cheeses such as Muenster.
Brachetto d’Acqui is a red Italian wine that is classified as a (DOCG. It is a frizzante (semi-sparkling) sweet wine from Piedmont that’s known for its candied and floral aromatics having aromas and flavors of candied strawberry, apricot, orange zest and black berry. It’s produced from 100% Brachetto grapes. It is usually below 10 abv. It’s a good paring for rich, creamy chocolate desserts or for berry tarts or strawberry ice cream. Serve it cool around 55 degrees F.
Cerons is a wine appellation in the communes of Cerons, Illats and Podensac, in the south of the Bordeaux wine region. The appellation is dedicated to making sweet white wines, made from Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and (less commonly) Sauvignon Gris.
Dried Grape/Passito Wines (14%)
Dried grape wines are made from grapes that are allowed to raisinate by being allowed to dry out over several weeks to months in a winery before being fermented into wine. These are called Passito or Straw Wines.
Petit Manseng (aka Small Manseng) is a white wine grape variety that has been primarily grown in South-West France. The name is derived from its small, thick skin berries. Petit Manseng’s thick skins and loose bunches allow this to happen without danger of botrytis making it attractive for more humid growing environments and disease resistant. Domestically however, notably in Virginia, it is made into distinctive dry wines which typically have high acidity, medium to full bodied and exotic tropical fruit aromas including pineapple, apricot with light floral overtones.
In France, it is most commonly vinified into a richly sweet wine with stone fruit character such as peach and apricot, citrus and sweet spice. The low-yielding variety enjoys a long ripening season, giving the grapes time on the vine to shrivel. This is where the grapes’ sugar content is concentrated as the excess water evaporates, leaving behind resinated berries. Petit Manseng’s high level of acidity makes this extended time on the vine possible. Fermentation often takes place in oak barrels imparting a more complex, spicy character to the wines. It is made into the sweet wines of the region Jurancon. It is also grown in the Basque region of Spain, in Australia.
Great food pairings for sweeter Petit Manseng wines include; Prawns with lemongrass, cilantro and ginger (off-dry), glazed apricot tart and chilled bananas & lychees in sweet coconut milk. It pairs well with a variety of foods, including Asian and Thai dishes that are not overly spicy.
Recioto di Soave (White) (14% ABV)
Recioto di Soave is a sweet white wine made from dried grapes grown in the Soave zone of Veneto in North-Eastern Italy. It is a Passito wine. An Italian term literally translated as “raisin”. Passito is used in Italy to describe wines that have been made from dried grapes, in the Appassimento method. Appassimento is an Italian term for drying harvested grapes, traditionally on bamboo racks or straw mats up to several months to concentrate the sugars and flavors. Recioto di Soave is made from such grapes. Traditionally this process took place on straw mats in the warmest part of a winery. Today, producers often use steel trays and temperature controlled rooms to dry their grapes. Recioto di Soave is made from white Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave (aka Verdicchio) grapes. These same grapes are used in dry Soave wines. Recioto di Soave wines produced in traditional Classico vinicultural zone are entitled to be labeled as Recioto di Soave Classico.
BTW, the word “Recioto” derives from the local dialect “recia” meaning “ear”, indicating the top of the cluster, the richest and most exposed to the sun. Enjoy a glass with intensely flavored cheeses, charcuterie, salty nuts or stone fruit desserts.
Recioto della Valpolicella (Red) (14% ABV)
Recioto della Valpolicella is an intensely flavored, sweet red wine made from dried (passito) grapes in the Veneto region of North-Eastern Italy. It is a sweet, unfortified wine with flavors of fresh black fruit and chocolate. It is made from the same grapes as Valpolicella; Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara. To concentrate the natural sugars and aromatics in their wines, Valpolicella’s producers have traditionally dried their grapes out after harvest. This removes water while concentrating the sweetness and flavor desired in the finished wine. They are picked in whole bunches and kept in drying rooms (with warm temperatures and low humidity) for up to three months. Traditionally the grapes were dried on straw mats in the warmest part of the winery, but modern technology has replaced straw with steel and lofts with pallets. When the drying process is complete, the grapes are gently pressed and the must is fermented until it reaches the desired balance of alcoholic strength and sweetness. The wine is then aged in barrels for at least two years; often smaller Slavonian oak barriques. Wines from the superior Classico and Valpantena sub-zones may be labeled as such.
BTW, the world “Recioto” derives from the local dialect “recia” meaning “ear”, indicating the top of the cluster, the richest and most exposed to the sun.
Classically the wine is paired with local pastries such as pastafrolla, traditional panettone and it can work well with (not too sweet) chocolate or cherry based desserts, or be enjoyed as an aperitif or with more powerful savory dishes.
Tokaji Aszú (White) (14% ABV)
Tokaji Aszú [TOKE-eye-ee AHS-ew] is a full-bodied sweet white dessert wine made from late ripened grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, a mold that concentrates grape sugars and flavors into honey like sweetness. The grapes are from the Hungarian Furmint or Hárslevelű grape vines, which are grown in the Tokaji wine region in northeastern Hungary. The shriveled and botrytis infected aka aszú grapes are made into either a base wine or an unfermented grape must. These grapes are kneaded into a paste and then soaked in the base wine or must. The taste and quality of Tokaji Aszú is greatly affected by the proportion of sugar rich aszú paste added to the must or the new wine. Finally, the wine is transferred to barrels and matured. Tokaji Aszú wine can take up to seven years to mature, after which it retains its flavor for a long time. The great balance in these wines comes from the natural acidity in the grapes, particularly Furmint, the dominant variety, though three other grapes can play roles; harslevelu, muscat blanc à petit grains and zeta and a few other grapes are also permitted. Usually the wines are blends, though occasionally, some are a 100 percent Furmint Aszu.
The term “puttonyo”, or basket, signifies an old method of gauging the sweetness in these wines. Moderately sweet wines contained three puttonyos of paste while a sweeter wine contains four, and so on. Today puttonyos refers simply to the level of residual sugar in the wine and only the five and six puttonyos wines are permitted to use the term on the label. Those in lower category now use generic phrases, like late harvest, but these wines can be delicious too. Tokajis have sweet flavors peaches, apricot, crisp apple and spice such as cinnamon, and flowers and honey, The sweetness, which could be overwhelming, is balanced by vibrant acidity. 6 Puttonyos Aszu is the sweetest with aromas of wildflowers, honey, apricots and caramel, bordering on syrupy but again well balanced by a fresh, clarifying acidity.
Tokajis are fantastic paired with foie gras, a washed rind cheese, blue cheese, or a soft, nutty cheese such as Muenster, caramelized apple dishes, Christmas pudding or Sichuan or Thai dishes.
Vin Santo (Sweet White) (14% ABV)
Vin Santo aka Vino Santo aka “Holy Wine” is a viscous, typically sweet dessert white wine made in Italy, mostly in Tuscany. It is a full bodied, usually very sweet dessert wine with aromas of hazelnut, caramel, honey, tropical fruit, perfume and dried apricot. Though primarily produced in Tuscany but notable producers are found in both Veneto (using Garganega grapes) and Trentino (using Nosiola grapes). Vin Santo is a “passito” wine. Wine dried grapes are pressed and placed into special barrels called Caratelli (translates to “small casks”) where they lie for a natural fermentation to begin. As the cask rooms increase in temperature in the spring the fermentation begins. It is a long and slow fermentation that can rise and fall with the seasons and take up to 4 years to complete. The Vin Santo barrels are special in that over time they will develop their own “mother” yeast. Because of this uncontrolled wine making process it means there is high variability between different producers. Some wines are nearly dry (not sweet), with higher alcohol 18–19% ABV. Other producers make extremely sweet wines around 220 g/L RS (think syrup) with about 14% ABV. Paired with biscotti, Vin Santo becomes “Cantucci e Vin Santo” which is in arguably Italy’s most famous delicious pre-dinner treat. Also try it with Blue cheese (especially Gorgonzola), high quality dark chocolate, rich pates such as duck liver pate, seared foie gras or nut-based tarts such as walnut tart and pecan pie or Italian-style chestnut cake.
Other Passito Wines
Recioto di Soave (White), Recioto della Valpolicella (Red), Verdicchio dei Castelli de Jesi Passito (White), Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Passito (Red) Lombardy, Valcelepio Moscato Passito White), Lugana Moscato Passito (White), Piedmont and Aosta Valley; Piemonte Moscato Passito (White) & Valle d’Aosta Moscato Passito (White), Sicily; Erice Passito (Muscat of Alexandria) Sardinia (White) & Carignano del Sulcis Passito (Red).
Lancers is a brand of medium-sweet, lightly sparkling light alcohol rosé (9.5% ABV) wine produced by the José Maria da Fonseca winery in Portugal. The brand was created in 1944, by Henry Behar at Vintage Wines of New York predicted that wine consumption in the United States would increase after World War II. It was originally sold in distinctive squat bottles made of rust-colored, opaque crockery rather than clear glass. The wine was named “Lancers” in tribute to one of Mr. Behar’s favorite paintings, “Las Lanzas”, by Velásquez.
Mateus is a brand of medium-sweet frizzante rosé wine produced in Portugal. The Mateus brand was created in 1945, and production began at the end of World War II. The wine was especially styled to appeal to the rapidly developing North American and northern European markets. Production grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the late 1980s, supplemented with a white version, it accounted for almost 40% of Portugal’s total export of table wine. It is made from grapes from the remote northern Province of Tras-os-Montes. Mateus rosé was among the alcoholic beverages which were stockpiled in the cellars of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It is a preferred wine of Queen Elizabeth II.
Source: Robinson, Jancis (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1999.
Rancio or Dry Oxidative wines age with more oxygen than is used to make other dry wines. Resulting in aromas and flavor, such as leather or orange rind are attractive only if the liquid is relatively high in alcohol, 17.5% being common. These wines may be blended from different vintages. Frequent example are Madeira, Port, Sherry, Marsala or the yellow wines of Jura France. The word rancio itself refers to old ports. What these wines have in common are the odors and premature aging flavors present in old sake and aged champagnes and certain botrytized wines. Aromas may include those of curry, nuts, coffee, caramel and dried figs. They can taste and smell can include caramel, maple syrup, burnt sugar, coffee, brown sugar and cotton candy.
These wines may be pricey due to the required aging and limited production. Their pungent aromas can pair well with dry, aromatic foods.
Many rancio wines are produced in southeast France—the Roussillon wine region—as well as in the nearby French and Spanish Catalan country. Grapes used to make rancio wines there are traditionally crafted of Grenache and Macabeo.