Home > Dessert wine, wine > Oh, My Sweet Valentine… – 2005 Version

Oh, My Sweet Valentine… – 2005 Version

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

* * *

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!

  1. Elvira
    February 9, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Very nice, well done. A+++++++++++

    • talkavino
      February 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      Thank you!

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