Why Sweet Wine Isn’t As Bad As You Think

Today’s post is about sweet wine, in particular why it is not as bad as its reputation is. I live in Germany and in this country there is a general prejudice against sweet wines. It is not uncommon that wine drinkers who prefer sweet wines are not taken seriously by fellow wine lovers. While all sweet wines have a tough time in Germany, red sweet wines have a particular bad reputation.

If you are one of those wine drinkers who has a prejudice against sweet wines, then I hope I have convinced you by the end of this post that sweet wine is really not as bad as you think it is. In the contrary, some of the the best wines I had were sweet wines.

Not all sweet wines are the same. There are a number of differences between the available style of sweet wines. Simplified, sweet wines can be put into one of four categories.

Raisin Wines (Passito-Style)

Grapes laid out to dry (appassimento). Photo: Zyance. License: CC BY 3.0

Grapes laid out to dry (appassimento). Photo: Zyance. License: CC BY 3.0

Raisin wines are attained by laying out the grapes on straw mats where they dry and gain more residual sugar. The amount of time they get raisinated can be from a few weeks to many months. The grapes for Recioto della Valpolicella, one of the most-prestigious passito wines,  are dried for about 3-4 months. During this time they lose up to 80% of their initial weight. In Italy, this process is known as appassimento.

Late Harvest Sweet Wines

These sweet wines are made from late harvest grapes. Grapes that ripe longer have more residual sugar. The longer the grapes hang on the vine the more raisinated they become. This style is popular in many wine regions and common in colder climates like Germany (Beerenauslese) but also in hot-climate zones like Southern Italy (Vendemmia Tardiva).

Depending on the fermentation, late harvest wines may not be sweet at all but instead have a higher alcohol content.

Noble Rot (Botrytis)

Botrytis sweet wine

Grapes which are affected by Botrytis. Photo: Alexandre Dulaunoy. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Noble Rot is a benevolent form of the spore Botrytis Cenerea which rots grapes in the vineyard. If harvested at the right time, grapes affected by Botrytis can produce excellent sweet wines. Probably the most famous sweet wine from grapes affected by Botrytis is the French Sauternes. Noble Rot is also used to produce the Hungarian Tokaji Szamorodni, among lots of other wines.

Fortified Wines

Depending on the definition, fortified wine can also be counted as sweet wine. However, dry fortified wine also exists. Fortified wines are produced mostly with late-harvest grapes to which Brandy or any other form of alcohol is added in the vinification process. The Portuguese Tawny Port and the Spanish Sherry are among the better known fortified-wines. Barolo Chinato is more obscure and only found in limited quantities. This fortified aromatic wine comes from Piedmont.

The Reputation of Sweet Wine

To be honest, I do not know the exact origins of why sweet wine has a bad reputation. But I blame the wine industry for flooding the market with mass-produced, artificially sweetened wines which on average don’t taste great. Poor quality Tokaji, bald Lambrusco, sugared Riesling & Müller-Thurgau and some other wines contributed in building a bad reputation for sweet wines.

Sugar has been used and in some countries is still used to mask wine sourced from cheap fruit. Adding sugar can mask a wine’s faults well. Cheap, sugared wine should not be confused with sweet wine. Wine snobs like to throw both in the same category and label them “basic”.

I work as a wine consultant when I am not pursuing my university studies and I see on a daily basis customers who are more than skeptical towards sweet wine. Why? Because they think that it is “substandard wine”. Some told me sweet wine reminds them of the cheap wine that they drank during college. If someone is convinced so much that sweet wines simply cannot be good then it is difficult to change their mind.

One of they ways to prove them wrong is to let them taste some outstanding sweet wines, usually for free. Otherwise these potential clients are just not likely going to buy any sweet wine. Therefore selling sweet wine in Germany is challenging and time consuming which is why more and more wine stores reduce their selection of sweet wines. This is a pity and a vicious circle. Less availably won’t help increasing its reputation. Many good wine stores in Munich carry hundreds of dry wines and at most a few handful of sweet wines.

So it is no surprise that the majority of Germany’s Eiswein gets exported to Asia and the Americas.  Eiswein is a sweet wine produced from grapes which were harvested at a temperature no higher than -7°C. In other countries the legal definition for Eiswein/ice wine may differ.

Why You Should Drink Sweet Wine

Or better: What’s stopping you? There is no reason not to try high quality sweet wines. The best way to remove the prejudice that sweet wine cannot be good is to try some – preferably from different regions.And no, you don’t have to rob a bank for a good sweet wine. While the majority of sweet wines are on average more expensive then their dry counter parts, mostly because of higher production cost, there are still some good deals out there. The tough part is to find them.

Forget that sweet wine is dull, boring and “just” sweet. Sweet wine can be wonderfully intense, complex and well-balanced.  Let’s get to some tasting notes, shall we? Below are three sweet wines which I have recently tasted.

2003 Helmut Christ – Volkacher Ratsherr Beerenauslese – Franken

2003 Helmut Christ Silvaner BeerenausleseThis Beerenauslese comes from Franconia, Germany, and is sourced from 100% Silvaner grapes from a single vineyard site called Volkacher Ratsheer.

On the nose, complex and intense with acacia honey, citrus zest and a bit of wax. In the mouth, not overwhelmingly sweet with a good acidity that keeps the wine in perfect balance. Good structure with notes of dried apple. Very harmonious. Lingering aftertaste.

4.5 stars

375ml bottle. Retail price: €22+

2013 Feiler-Artinger – Traminer Beerenauslese – Burgenland

Another Beerenauslese but this wine is from Burgenland, Austria and made with 100% Traminer grapes which were affected by Noble Rot. The harvest for the 2013 vintage took place in early December. Fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks. This wine comes at an unbeatable quality-price ratio.

The nose is a mix of flowers and fruit aromas: Roses, ripe tropical fruit, candid lemons, quince as well as cinnamon and hints of pepper. In the mouth, perfectly harmonious with a good sweetness and a balanced acidity which keeps things in check. Elegant wine with a good structure. Slightly mineral. Never-ending finish.
4.5 stars375ml bottle. Retail price: €12+

This might be one of the best, if not the best, QPR for any Beerenauslese which I have tasted this far. Like I said, you don’t have to rob a bank to drink amazing sweet wine. Feiler-Artinger also makes a Beerenauslese from a blend of Chardonnay, Gelber Muskateller and Welschriesling. I prefer the varietal Traminer.

2009 Marco Carpineti – Ludum – Lazio IGT

2009 Marco Carpineti - Ludum- Lazio IGTLudum is the name of the sweet wine from Marco Carpineti, a winery from Lazio, Italy. It is produced from 100% hand-picked, late-harvest Bellone Arciprete grapes. The harvest occurs in mid-November. The grapes are then fermented in oak barrels in which the wine also continues to age for 12 months.

Lots of candid fruit and a few spicy aromas. On the palate, Ludum has a fine level of sweetness and not too much acidity. Round, elegant wine with a full-body. Perfect length.

4 stars500ml bottle. Retail price: €18+

Parting Words

2012 Donnafugata Ben RyeThis concludes my post on sweet wines. If you viewed sweet wines with skepticism then I hope I was able to convince you to try to some.

There is one particular sweet wine which I have previously reviewed that I want to recommend: Donnafugata Ben Rye Passioto di Pantelleria. Rarely have I met a wine lover who disliked this passito If you are unsure which sweet wine you should try then go for Ben Rye.

To the right is a picture of 2012 Ben Rye which I tasted last March at ProWein. 2012 is still a little young so look for something older. 2008 was perfect.

What about red sweet wines? The world of sweet wine is huge and there are countless of sweet wines which deserved a mention in this post. But that list would have been too long to ever complete. If you are looking for a good deal for a red sweet wine then I highly recommend this Eiswein from Burgenland, Austria: 2011 Winzerhof Allacher -11° Zweigelt Eiswein. I have not had the time to review it on Vino in Love yet but it’s on my (long) to-do list. It retails for about €20 in Germany and offers great value for money.

Red sweet wine is produced from lots of grape varieties. At ProWein, I had the pleasure of tasting impressive Canadian ice wine from Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc grapes. In Umbria, the extremely tannic Sagrantino grape is used to produce outstanding Montefalco Sagrantino Passito. Just to give you some ideas.

I’d love to hear your opinion on sweet wines. Do they have a bad reputation in your country? Feel free to share it in the comment section below. Cheers!


4 comments on “Why Sweet Wine Isn’t As Bad As You Think”

  1. Sean P. Reply

    I don’t think dessert wines are bad at all. What’s better after a nice dinner than a glass of mature vintage port?

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