Re-post: Affordable Luxuries of the Wine World: Sweet Wines
During 2011 I wrote a number of posts for the project called The Art Of Life Magazine – of course talking about my favorite subject, wine. The project closed and even web site is down, but as I still like the posts I wrote, I decided to re-post them in this blog. Also, in that project, posts were grouped into mini-series, such as “Affordable Luxuries” you see here – I will continue re-posting them from time to time.
Also note that the series was written for a slightly different audience – I hope none of my readers will take offense in the fact that sometimes I’m stating the obvious. Ahh, and I think this post is very appropriate today, as we celebrate Valentine’s Day – Happy Valentine’s Day to all!
We are continuing our “affordable luxuries” series. In the previous posts we were comparing Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage wines, as well as Grenache and Garnacha. Today we will talk about sweet wines.
First, let’s make sure we are all on the same page. We will be talking about real wines, made out of grapes, with soul and heart – this excludes white zinfandel, as well as blueberry, peach and coconut concoctions from further consideration. Second, I deliberately avoid using the word “dessert” wines, as that creates and expectations that we will be talking about wines which should be served only after a meal – where sweet wines are just the wines which have a lot of sweetness in the taste – but they are balanced and interesting enough to be actually served at any time during the meal or by themselves. I remember how Kevin Zraly, famous American wine educator, described his dining experience in Sauternes, area in France making some of the best in the world sweet wines: while he was expecting Sauternes to be served only with desserts, quite on contrary, they were served as aperitif, with an appetizer and entrée course, and then, of course, with dessert.
If you look at the sweet wines in general, you will find wide variety of styles, with differences a lot more pronounced than, for instance, between classic Burgundy and fruit forward California Zinfandel. It would make it a fun project to classify the sweet wines of the world (hmmm, note to self), however, it would never fit in the format of the entertaining blog post, so let’s defer this for some other time, and let’s just lay down some basic facts.
Essentially, sweet wines can be made from absolutely any grape used in the wine making. There are some grape varieties, like Muscat, which are known to develop very high sugar levels and thus used more often in production of the sweet wines. Nevertheless, grapes are always harvested when they contain enough sugar to be made into the wine of particular style, whether it is Rioja, or Burgundy, or California Cabernet Sauvignon or anything else. Once grapes are harvested, they undergo a process of fermentation – that’s when sugars are converted by the yeast into the alcohol.
What makes wine to taste sweet is the amount of sugar left in the wine after fermentation is complete (it is called “residual sugar”). So in a very simplistic way, when we make sweet wine, we want grapes to have as much sugar as possible – which can be achieved by late harvesting the grapes, or by drying grapes under the sun, almost making them into raisins before the fermentation (this process is called passito), or by letting grapes to shrivel on the vine as the result of noble rot, or by letting grapes freeze on the vine and then making wine out of the frozen grapes. Whew, so much information in a single sentence! If you want to actually learn more about the same in a slow down form, take a look at the Wikipedia article on the sweet wines.
In order to retain sugar in the wine, we need to stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted into alcohol. There are two ways to do so. One is by adding pure alcohol, which kills all the leftover yeast and therefore fermentation stops. This is how Port wines are made, for instance. Another way to stop fermentation is by lowering the temperature of the liquid, which will technically achieve the same result as adding the alcohol (yeast stops converting sugars into alcohol), and then filtering the yeast out. This is how Riesling wines are made, for instance. There will be of course a difference in the amount of alcohol in the resulting wines – Ports typically have 19%, and Rieslings typically are ranging from 7% to 12%.
Now, after all this technical details, we are supposed to be talking about affordable luxuries, right? We learn to like (and crave) sugar from the moment we are born, so it is very easy to like sweet wines. But – it is not maple syrup we are talking about – it is a wine after all. The idea of a great wine is that it gives us pleasure – and pleasure of wine is dependent on the balance, whatever the balance would mean to you. Therefore, sweet wines are not been an exception at all – we want them to be balanced, same as any other wine we enjoy drinking. You want the balance of sweetness, acidity, fruit, minerality and alcohol – in other words, you want sweet wines to have sense of place and being well made.
Same as for any other wines, you will find sweet wines at full range of prices. Legendary Chateau d’Yquem from Sauternes will get you anywhere from $600 to $2000 per bottle, depending on the year and availability. At the same time, you can enjoy Haut Charmes Sauternes (Number 12 on my 2010 Top Dozen wines list) for $17. You can find Ruby Port for about $10 ( not necessarily very enjoyable), going to Rozes over 40 years old Port for about $100 (amazing, Number 2 on my 2010 Top Dozen) and then to the Taylor Fladgate Scion 155 years old (dream) at $3000 per bottle – if you can find it, of course.
So for this post, let’s compare 2008 d’Arenberg Stump Jump Sticky Chardonnay from Australia (about $10 for 375 ml bottle) with 2006 Dr. Loosen Riesling BA ($20 for 187 ml bottle, so it is 4 times more expensive).
This sticky Chardonnay is a very nice wine, showing lots of peach, ripe apple and honey notes on the palate, with good acidity. When you try this wine by itself, the perception is “very good” – you just need to forgive some rough edges, a little sharpness on the palate.
So one would be technically quite happy with this Dessert wine – at least until he or she will have a chance to try the Dr. Loosen Beerenauslese Riesling. Light and beautiful, effervescent, with exposed minerality, smooth and balanced, with clean acidity and light sweetness. Very easy to drink and without any heavy aftertaste (as some sweet white wines can do). While d’Arenberg Sticky Chardonnay is quite drinkable, Dr. Loosen Riesling is definitely few notches above in terms of delivering pleasure.
Well, it is time to conclude. I hope you got a few ideas to explore – and don’t be afraid to experiment and look for your own personal wine pleasures – the reward is well worth it. Cheers!