Let's Look At Some Sweet WinesThese are the most common sweet wines for beginners produced in the mainstream wine industry. I'll start with the lighter varieties and work up to the heavier dessert wines.
Moscato d'Asti is a light, slightly effervescent (fizzy) but distinctly sweet white wine from Italy's Asti region. It's got clean refreshing acidity but isn't complex. Moscato is low in alcohol so it's easy to drink and even easier to drink when served slightly chilled. It tastes of the perfume that is distinctive of the Muscat grape.
Champagne or any sparkling can be sweet if you find the right kind. Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante is a great sparkling sweet wine for beginners. Lots of bubbles, affordable (under $13) and again from Italy. Asti to be exact. For other sparklings, look for Sec or Demi Sec on the labels.
Fortified Wines like Ports, are made by adding Brandy spirits during fermentation. This actually kills the yeasts that convert sugar to alcohol leaving the wine very sweet, yet spikes the alcohol content well over 18%. Needless to say a little fortified wine goes a long way. If you are looking for a sweet red wine, try a ruby Port. Sherry, another type of fortified wine is made similarly to Port but adds a golden sweet wine made from a different grape variety. And finally, Madeira, made like Port by adding grape spirits to the barrels to stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted by the yeast, is then baked in ovens to carmelize the sugars. You will need to sip them to learn about wine and what it means for a wine to be fortified as you will get a nose full of alcohol from the Brandy and not understand what it is you are sipping. Still, all quite yummy.
Late Harvests - Simply, grapes are left on the vines in the late autumn to ripen to their fullest. The grape clusters can be left to dry on the vines, picked and dried indoors or just laid down on the vineyard ground to shrivel in the sun and do their best impression of a raisin. Late Harvest wines are not usually as complex as Noble Rot or Eisweins but they are full of sticky honey, deep fruit flavors, and floral bouquets. These are sweet white wines.
Eiswein or Germany's Ice Wine is made from grapes that are picked during a hard frost while still frozen on the vine. When pressed, the concentrated sugars are separated from the grape's icy water. The ice doesn’t pass into the pressed juice, which makes the wine quite concentrated and sweet. And because they are late-harverst berries, the grapes are very ripe producing captivating sweet tasting wine with extracted fruit and high acidity that make them excellent with food. Eisweins are also produced in Canada and Austria. Due to the labour-intense and risky production process resulting in relatively small amounts of wine, ice wines are generally quite expensive sometimes costing more than $90 per half bottle. But by far these are the best sweet wines available.
Botrytis cinerea is a rot fungus also known as "Noble rot". Dessert wines made from grapes that have been shriveled by the spore-like fungus that removes water from the grapes, resulting in a higher percentage of concentrated sugars. Damp nights and warm days help dry the grapes to prevent total decomposition. The end result is a syrupy, honeyed wine of decadent proportions. An example of a dessert wine produced this way is the prestigious Sauternes of Bordeaux, which is a Botrytis Semillon, the Tokaji Aszú from Hungary, and Trockenbeerenauslese (TROCK-en-BEHR-en-OWS-lay-zeh) from Germany. Botrytis is not a common occurrence. Only the right conditions of temperature and humidity in perfect vintage years set the stage for Botrytis to appear naturally. That is what is so amazing about any dessert wine labeled Botrytis. These types of wine are also late-harvest wines and can be made into Eisweins.
Types of Grapes Used in Sweet Wines
Some of these are produced as single varietals.
- Sémillon (Primary grape for Bordeaux Sauternes)
- Chenin Blanc
- Trebbiano (Vin Santo-Tuscany)
- Furmint (Primary grape for Hungary's Tokaji Aszú)
- Zinfandel (Late Harvest Zinfandel/California)
All of which are great sweet wines for beginners.