America leads the world in per-capita sugar intake, but there can be a stigma surrounding sweet wines. It’s a perplexing phenomenon, not least because some of the world’s finest, most ageable bottles reside in the latter pages of restaurant wine lists.
Though they undeniably offer the perfect pairing for desserts, sweet wines are by no means a one-trick pony. Assembling a cheese board? Try pairing with a fragrant botrytized sweet wine. Ordering in fried chicken? Ditch the Champagne and stick a bottle of Sauternes on ice. Too full for dessert? Try a small, 4-ounce pour of succulent ice wine for the perfect way to round off your meal.
The best sweet wines are born in the vineyard, where a number of different factors can provide a much higher concentration of sugar than found in grapes used for still wines. Though sugar content defines the category, piercing acidity is a fundamental part of the world’s best sweet wines, providing much-needed balance.
Ready to sample some for yourself? Here are the world’s most important (unfortified) sweet wines and the unique ways they’re made.
Described by Louis XIV as “the wine of kings, the king of wines,” the Aszú wines of Tokaj, Hungary, are among the most celebrated in the world. Fragrant and honeyed, the golden nectar typically includes notes of apricots, ginger, white flowers, marmalade, and sweet baking spices.
Production depends on the presence of a magical, gray vineyard fungus called botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” In certain wine regions, including Tokaj, where misty, humid mornings give way to dry, sunny afternoons, noble rot pierces grapes’ skins, allowing their inner moisture to slowly evaporate. Over the course of the growing season, grapes gradually shrivel to the size of small raisins, at which point they’re harvested one by one.
Before pressing, the harvested aszú berries soak for a period of up to 36 hours in dry or semi-sweet wine. The high sugar content of the pressed grape juice inhibits yeast’s productivity, meaning not everything is converted to alcohol. This leaves a generous amount of residual sugar (around 120 to 150 grams per liter) and a low ABV wine (between 9 and 11 percent). This process takes much longer than standard fermentation and, once it’s finished, the wine is transferred to oak barrels to mature for at least two years.
Grape varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű
Arguably the rarest and most luxurious of all sweet wines, Tokaji Eszencia is made from the free-run juice of aszú berries. Fermentation takes six to eight years to complete, with wines bottled at around 3 percent ABV with sugar content between 450 and 800 grams per liter. Tokaji Eszencia is so rich that it is typically served on ornate crystal spoons.
Grape varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű
A 4,000-acre region within the Graves district of Bordeaux, Sauternes produces another of the world’s great botrytized wines. Five communes make up the appellation, where rules stipulate that wines can only be made using Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle grapes. Harvesting can only take place once grapes reach a minimum potential alcohol content of 13 percent ABV. (Potential alcohol content refers to the amount of fermentable sugars within a grape, and is therefore an indication of its sweetness. Like Tokaji Aszú, the finished wine never fully ferments to reach this level.)
Sémillion usually accounts for the majority of the blend as it’s the most susceptible of the four to noble rot. Sauvignon blanc brings freshness by way of its naturally high acidity, while Muscadelle adds aromatic qualities. Fermentation typically takes place in either tanks or barriques, and wines age between 18 and 36 months in oak before bottling. Intensely aromatic, Sauternes wines contain notes of honeyed apricots, caramel, coconut, mango, ginger, and citrus fruits.
Grape varieties: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle
BA and TBA Riesling
The Austrian and German contributions to the botrytized wine category include Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), which are usually produced with Riesling.
Wine laws in both countries dictate that grapes picked with a potential alcohol between (approximately) 15 and 18 percent ABV should be labeled as BA wines, while those with 21 percent ABV or above make up the Trockenbeerenauslese category.
Riesling’s electric acidity not only balances out these extremely sweet wines’ high residual sugar, it also lays the foundations for decades and, in some instances, centuries of aging potential.
In some countries, growers can leave grapes on vines long into winter, without the worry of rot setting in. Once frozen, they pick and press the grapes, with only the sugary must emerging. The viscous liquid is then fermented into deliciously sweet ice wine.
Common in Canada and (to a lesser extent) the Finger Lakes, the style is native to Germany and Austria, where it’s known as eiswein. Ice wines maintain vibrant acidity, with Riesling offering great examples in all four territories. In Canada, hybrid French variety Vidal Blanc is also vinified.
Grape varieties: Riesling, Vidal, Grüner Veltliner
Gently fizzy Moscato d’Asti is the emblematic dessert wine of Italy’s Piemonte region. Produced using Moscato Bianco, the highly aromatic frizzante wine exudes aromas of peaches, grapes, orange blossom, and lemons. Though often grouped with Asti, the two wines carry discernible differences: Moscato d’Asti is much less fizzy and its alcohol content is lower, maxing out at 6.5 percent ABV.
Grapes for Moscato d’Asti must reach a minimum potential alcohol content of 10 percent ABV before harvest. Immediately after pressing, the grape must is chilled to near freezing point, and only fermented when required. The process is halted when the wine reaches between 5.5 and 6.5 percent ABV, leaving a pleasant sweetness that pairs wonderfully with desserts.
Grape varieties: Moscato Bianco
Recioto della Valpolicella
Located in the Veneto region of northwest Italy, Valpolicella is best known for its dry red Amarone wines. Another regional specialty, Recioto della Valpolicella, is made using the same passito process as Amarone, with picked grapes left to dry on special, sheltered outdoor racks during the autumn and winter months.
Local variety Corvina makes up the majority of production, with Corvinone, Rondinella, and a handful of other international varieties also authorized. When the grape-drying process is complete, the grapes are gently pressed and fermented before the wine ages in barrels for at least two years.
Traditionally paired with local pastries, Recioto della Valpolicella also shines as a complex digestif, with aromas of dried fruit, cocoa, vanilla, and tobacco, and notes of black cherries and plums on the palate.
Grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella