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!
Quite honestly, I had something else in mind as the topic for the quiz (wanted to play around some etymology and urban legends) – but considering how white is everything outside (we got about 18 inches of snow here in Southern CT), I decided to take a totally different subject for the quiz – it will be all about Ice wines (a.k.a. Icewine and Eiswein).
Here are the questions for today’s quiz:
1. Briefly explain what Icewines are, including required conditions for harvesting of the grapes.
2. Which country is the biggest producer of the Icewine? As a bonus question, narrow it down to the specific region in that country.
3. Name two most popular white grape varieties for production of the Icewine.
4. Name the winery which pioneered Icewines made from the red grapes. Name that grape as well.
Good luck and have fun! Cheers!
As I did recently with the post about Champagne, let me present you with an article written for the same Stamford Times newspaper in 2005 – talking about sweet wines for your special Valentin’s day, which is coming up in less than a week. For what it worth, here it is in its entirety.
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Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner. All stores are full of heart-shaped things, candies in particular. Seems that “sweet” is closely entwined into our tradition of Valentine’s Day celebration, and sweets and romance are usually go together. While we are on the subject, did you ever think of where the word “honeymoon” came from? If you know the answer – great, you can skip the last paragraph, if not – please keep reading and you will get an answer at the end.
Now, let’s talk about sweet substance which usually doesn’t come in the heart-shaped form, but nevertheless is worth mentioning – let’s talk about sweet wine. So how come the wine can be sweet? Do they add sugar to it? No, usually, nobody adds sugar to the wine. Sugar is developing in the grape as it ripens, and it is a result of photosynthesis ( no sun – no sugar – no wine, very simple formula). As the grape ripens, the amount of sugar is increasing, thus the idea is very simple – the longer time grape spends under the sun, the sweeter it becomes. The later harvest is, more sugar the grape will have. Have you seen words “late harvest” on the wine label? What it telling you is that the grape spent more time on the vine and was harvested late, thus you should expect that the wine under such label will generally be sweeter.
Well, then, if sugar is naturally present in the grape, how come most of the wine we drink is not sweet at all – they are so called dry wines? After grapes are pressed, when grape juice is fermented by adding yeast, the fermentation process stops by itself once all sugar is converted into alcohol – this is why we usually don’t taste sugar in the wine. Based on that fact, we can see that if grape has too much sugar, we might get wine very high in the alcohol, which will usually defeat the purpose. The fact that amount of sugar in the grape needs to be controlled, often dictates the starting date of harvest. But when the goal is to produce sweet wine, the grapes are usually left on the vine for as long as possible, they shrivel under the sun, almost becoming raisins, plus very often it is desirable that the mold, called Bortrytis cinerea, or “noble rot” will develop on the grapes. This will ensure that grape will have maximum concentration of sugar, which will be then only partially fermented into an alcohol, thus producing sweet wine.
One more fact would be interesting to note – as it is necessary to wait until the grapes are “raisiny” enough to be made into a sweet wine, usually small quantity of suitable grapes is harvested, and also such suitable grapes should be picked by hand multiple times. This translates into the fact that very often sweet wines carry a high sticker price (however an exception, but some German Rieslings, for instance, can go for $400 per 375 ml bottle)
To make sweet wines even more concentrated, as unusual as it sounds, next after sun and heat comes frost. This is how so called ice wine is made – grapes are harvested well into the winter months, when temperature drops below 17°F. Frost leads to the further dehydration of grapes, thus ensuring even higher levels of sugar and flavor in the grape. The grapes are pressed while frozen, and usually very limited quantity of the grape juice is extracted, which in turn means once again – you guessed it right – high prices. Just to add a historic prospective, ice wine was first produced in Germany at the end of 18th century and since then it is becoming more and more popular and it is now produced in other countries with great success (Austria and Canada are two of top contenders).
So where sweet wines are made? The answer is – pretty much everywhere. While covering all different sweet wine regions in this article would be impossible, let’s take a quick tour around the world.
We will start in … France, of course. Some of the best sweet wines in the world are produced in the region of Bordeaux called Sauternes. Sauternes wine is made primarily out of grape called Semillon. The most famous wine in Sauternes are made at Chateau d’Yquem – you wouldn’t regret having Chateau d’Yquem served at your romantic dinner.
While we are in Europe, let’s make another stop – Germany. Assumingly, German Rieslings don’t need much introduction. Riesling wine is made out of the grape with the same name – Riesling. There are different levels of sweetness (five of them) in German Rieslings – starting from the one called Kabinett, which is a semi-dry wine, and going to the one called Trockenbeerenauslese ( TBA in short), which makes very rich, sweet, honey-like wine ( the price also follows the trail).
Of course when talking about wine, we can’t forget about Italy. While most of its fame is coming from the red wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, there are a number of well known sweet wines coming from that beautiful country. Asti Spumante, a sweet sparkling wine, would be one. Moscato di Asti would be another one – lightly fizzed wine with a fresh and delicate aroma. Vin Santo out of Tuscany (produced in the Chianti region) might also sound familiar.
Let’s cross the ocean now – in United States, sweet wines are produced in the number of regions, best of them arguably coming from upstate New York and state of Washington. These sweet wines are usually made out of Riesling grape. Canada is also worth mentioning as since 1973 it became a very respected producer of ice wine and compete very well in that category with both Germany and Austria.
While there is more to the geography of the sweet wines ( we didn’t even get to talk about Australia, Chili, Spain, Portugal and others), let’s talk about how and what to serve them with. The serving temperature range for the sweet wines is rather large, from 50°F to 65°F. You can chose the serving temperature depending on what characteristic of the wine you want to bring out – for the sweetness you can serve it warmer (57°F – 65°F), but if you want to stress light and refreshing side of the wine, you can serve it colder (50°F – 57°F).
What to serve with the sweet wine? One possible choice – nothing. After all, there is plenty of sugar in that glass to qualify as a desert by itself. But if you want to have the sweet wine with food, the rules are the same as for any wine in general – it can either complement or contrast the food. You can serve sweet wine with desert to complement it, or you can contrast – serve a nice Riesling with blue cheese, for instance.
One thing left before we conclude – the answer to the “honeymoon question”. The word comes from ancient Persia, where it was a tradition for the father of the bride to provide a month-long supply of alcoholic beverage called mead (made out of honey) for the groom to be enjoyed after the wedding. As lunar calendar was used at that time, hence the “honeymoon” word.
With this we will conclude our short journey to the world of sweet wine. This Valentine’s Day, bring a bottle of sweet wine to your sweet Valentine, and to make sure it will taste the best – enjoy it together! Cheers!
Don’t worry, this will not be a story about apple wine. At the minimum, it will be about food and wine. So the weather was beautiful, and the apple picking trip (almost an annual tradition in the fall) was inevitable, especially considering free weekend day. Our favorite place to pick apples is Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Connecticut. This place never disappoints – apples are good and abundant, and getting them of the trees is a lot of fun.So once you have a lot of apples, what do you do? No, not wine. And for me – not an apple pie either. I don’t really like liquidy pies, so my personal preference is an apple cake. How do you make an apple cake? Actually, quite easy. Here is the recipe:
4 apples (Granny Smith is the best as they usually sour enough to stand against sweet dough)
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of flour
Cinnamon ( by the taste).
Core and peel the apples, and slice them thin. Making a dough: blend eggs first, then add sugar, and then flour. Make sure you end up with liquid and consistent dough. Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 425F.
Grease pan with butter stick and cover with bread crumbs. Bread crumbs should cover bottom and walls of the pan. Remove excess of the bread crumbs. Your pan should look like this:
The dough goes on top:
And then pan goes in the oven:
Bake it first for 15 minutes on 425F, then reduce the heat to 375F. DO NOT OPEN oven until the end – you have to let the cake to rise. In the end of the process, you end up with this:
And this is the look inside:
Yep – Yummy!
So you think this post is about food only? No, of course not. Yes, you can have this cake with ice cream, coffee and/or tea. But this blog is about wine, so how about it? I’m glad to report that Bartenura Malvasia Salento IGT 2009 from Italy, a sweet, lightly fizzed wine worked quite well with that apple cake, complementing each other.
So here we are – great and very simple cake ( takes about an hour from start to finish) and simple easy wine – all together equal to great and enjoyable evening.
P.S. By the way, what would you pair the apple cake with?