Look to the history books, and one is quick to find mention of the lusciously sweet white wine of the past. Whether it be the noble Sauternes or the decadent Vin de Constance about which Napoleon wrote, white dessert wines are often a source of exceptional quality and value.
Why are wines sweet?
Prior to massive innovations in science and winemaking, keeping wine stable was a constant concern. The sugar in sweet wines acts as a great stabilizing agent. Sweet white wines are made in a variety of ways.
First, as in the case of the vibrant Rieslings of Germany, wines can have their fermentation stopped before it is completed. This leaves residual sugar in the wine and usually lower alcohol levels result.
Wines may also be left to hang on the vine, which concentrates the sugars as the grapes ripen. Going further from this, wines can be left to hang into the winter so that they freeze which similarly concentrates the sugars. Another method is where picked grapes are left to dry on mats that shrivel the grape, resulting in a lusciously sweet wine.
Finally, and perhaps the most unique way that wine is made sweet is from noble rot. This type of mold, known as botrytis cinerea requires moist mornings and sunny afternoons. This unique process concentrates sugars and leaves wines with distinctive honey, ginger, and dried fruit notes.
Must Try Sweet White Wine
For the uninitiated and the sweet tooths, the wines and varieties below are some of the top sweet white wines to try.
If Sauternes is the king of sweet white wines, then Tokaji may be the queen. This Hungarian wine is created by the convergence of a fantastic blend of grapes and the unmistakable noble rot. Sitting near the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, these create the perfect conditions for Botrytis to bloom. The blend is predominately led by Furmint, and Hárslevelű, with smaller quantities of Sárgamuskotály found as well.
Though wines tend to range from sweet to nectar-like, there is one that stands above the rest in its richness. The rare Tokaji Esszencia, made exclusively from the free-run juice of botrytized grapes can reach beyond 450 g/l and can age nearly indefinitely. It is one of the rarest and sweetest wines on the planet.
Likely the most recognizable white dessert wines on the planet, Sauternes is the perfect blend of both noble rot and three grapes working in harmony. Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle blend together. Sauvignon Blanc provides acidity and freshness, muscadelle provides a floral lift and Semillon is particularly susceptible to noble rot. Semillon has gained such traction that one of Australia’s most popular dessert wines is the Botrytis Semillon from De Bortoli.
Limited to just a few areas of production around the world, Ice wine (Eiswein in German) is one of the most extreme wines produced due to the fact that grapes must be picked at -7 degrees Celsius, usually in the middle of the night. Riesling is a comment grape used, but in Canada, the hybrid grape Vidal is often used. Germany, Austria, Canada, and the United States all produce Icewine, but it is Canada that produces by far the largest quantities.
Capable of producing wines of incredible depth and complexity, Chenin Blanc’s homeland in the Loire Valley is capable of producing lively ageable dry whites, but the dessert wines of Quarts de Chaumes and Bonnezeaux can rival some of the best sweet wines. They are typically sweetened through noble rot, although late harvest styles are also common.
Used around the world in sweet wines, this grape can range from bone-dry to syrupy-sweet. Alsace and Germany are known for their sweet Rieslings, though the sweet Rieslings of Alsace are rarer. Germany uses a complex system, known as the Pradikat system, to measure grape ripeness and in turn, sweetness. Off-dry Rieslings are left naturally sweet by cooling down the fermentation. As the Rieslings get sweeter, more botrytis tends to be present, except in the case of Eiswein. For a lusciously sweet wine, look for the terms Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese on labels.
Muscat, an ancient grape with numerous clones and styles found across the globe, is the source of several sweet wines. In its lightest form, Moscato d’Asti is a lightly sparkling sweet wine. In France, a whole host of iterations exist like the Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and Muscat de Rivesaltes. These are all typically fortified and sweet. While not a white grape, the dense Rutherglen Muscats are certainly the sweetest and most intense of any Muscat wines produced.