Sweet Wines: A Noble Pursuit

It may not have the raciest of images, but sweet wine is undergoing quiet change. Jamie Goode reports

It’s hard not to opt for a clichéd introduction when you write about sweet wines. You know the sort of things to expect: they’re the undervalued gems of the wine world; there’s a wide diversity of them; they used to be highly prized but now they’re looking like artefacts of a vanished age when people weren’t counting calories or driving home from the restaurant. 

Of course, there’s some truth in this – the great glory days of sweet wine have passed. As an example, look at the Australian wine market pre-1960s, when fortified sweet wines were absolutely dominant. That situation will never return. But sweet wine is alive and there’s lots of interest in this category, particularly in the on-trade where there has been success with by-the-glass programmes and specific wine recommendations on menus.

Grapes picked at normal maturity contain around 220g/litre of sugar. Yeasts typically consume 16g of sugar for each degree of alcohol they produce, and generally poison themselves when the alcohol level reaches 15%. So producers wanting to make sweet wines have to find ways of preventing yeasts using up all the sugar, either by starting with very high sugar levels through a late harvest, or stopping yeasts in their tracks, or a combination of both approaches. 

It is the variety of approaches to making sweet wine that in large part accounts for their diversity. 

The concentration of sugars in grapes is one route and, rather handily, this also concentrates acidity, which is vital to balance the perception of sweetness and to avoid the wine becoming too cloying. This can be achieved by freezing grapes (ice wine), or by drying grapes after harvest (Vin Santo, Pedro Ximenez sherry, Recioto della Valpolicella). But the most famous way this is achieved is through noble rot, when already ripe white grapes (notably Semillon and Sauvignon in Bordeaux, Riesling in the Mosel, and Furmint in Tokaji) are infected with the fungus botrytis cinerea, which concentrates the sugars and acids. But this is not all that the fungus does. 

I visited wine scientist, consultant winemaker and vigneron Denis Dubourdieu at one of his family properties, Château Doisy-Daëne, in Barsac (Sauternes), Bordeaux to quiz him about Sauternes and other sweet wines in Bordeaux. 

According to him, the key for great Sauternes is having just a short time between the end of ripening and infection by botrytis. “Infection is not only about concentration,” he says, “it is about the stimulation of aroma precursors by the pulp.” 

Dubordiueu and his research team discovered the importance of these aroma compounds in white wines, which are then turned into aromatic molecules called polyfunctional thiols, which contribute grapefruit, apricot and passion fruit characters to the wine. They’re abundantly present in the best Sauvignon Blancs, but also at even higher levels in many botrytised wines. 

“When the grape is becoming an old guy it is difficult for it to be excited by the fungus,” says Dubordieu. So, to produce the best Sauternes you want fast ripening and fast invasion of healthy ripe grapes. “Sauternes is not a place of late harvest: most of the best vintages are early vintages,” he states. Merely concentrating the sugars and acids makes very nice wines, but not great ones.

Driving force

The driving force behind the Sauternes market has been its star player, Château Yquem – the most famous sweet wine of all. In 1999 Yquem was bought by Bernard Arnault, who decided to put prices up considerably, from an already high position. As a result some negociants ended up losing money on the 2005 Yquem, when in previous vintages they would have snapped up any allocation they could get their hands on. 

This has likely had an effect on the market for other top Sauternes, which haven’t kept pace with the price increases for top red Bordeaux. Dubordieu acknowledges that Sauternes is difficult to sell, but “here at Doisy Daëne we have no stock, it is all sold.” He says: “The price is not what we prefer, but we have no problems selling.” 

An interesting initiative to spread the message of the sweet wines of Bordeaux to a new generation is sweet bordeaux.com, a social media-savvy enterprise promoting their consumption. 

A particular emphasis of the site is food and sweet wine matching, aiming to encourage people to open sweet wines not just at the end of a meal, but also during it. 

“People don’t know when to drink Sauternes,” says Elizabeth de Pontac-Chabot of Château Myrat in Barsac. “Because they can keep for a long time people forget them in their cellars, but they are nice as young wines with lobster, for example.” 

Alsace producer Etienne Hugel also wants to see sweet wines being used outside of a dessert context. “I have started a crusade against sweet wine being paired with dessert. I pair it with savoury dishes – there are so many more exciting pairings with savoury dishes.”

The approach of François Chartier – a noted food and wine matching expert from Canada who discovers innovative, synergistic pairings by looking not at tastes but rather shared families of aroma molecules – could help people discover more of these successful combinations.   

Historically, fortification – the addition of neutral grape spirit to wine – was a sure-fire way of making wines stable for shipping, and the two most significant fortified wine styles are port and sherry, both of which are still very important. 

All port is sweet because the grape spirit is added after just a few days of fermentation. A while back it looked as if wines such as these – sweet, high in alcohol and with a very traditional
image – would be consigned to a historical niche, but they are actually gaining in popularity at the important end of the market. 

“Port continues to outperform other fortified wines, notably sherry, by a country mile,” says Paul Symington, head of Symington Family Estates, one of the two largest players in the port market. “Last year total port sales were 8.8m cases with 89% exported and 41% of all sales being in the premium category,” he adds. [This category encompasses LBV, age-designated tawnies and vintage port.] 

“But port continues to lose volume at the standard quality end,” he continues. “Basically, the loss is of cheap young port drunk as an aperitif in France and Belgium.” 

Indeed, the biggest market for port in terms of volume has for a long time been France, where it is common for people to keep a bottle of cheap tawny in the fridge. “However, there is growth in the premium port categories and the level of innovation by some port companies has been very high, helping to build port sales at the higher value end,” Symington says. 

One of the more successful port innovations has been the development of Noval Black by Quinta do Noval.
Martin Skelton is MD of Gonzalez Byass in the UK, which distributes the wines of Noval. “We have found in the past five years there is less interest in entry-level tawnies and rubies, and in the past year we have doubled our sales in Noval Black,” he says. 

“This is packaging made simple – striking and interesting, for people who aren’t particularly interested in the blend of varieties or whether the product has been foot-trodden or not. Despite all that, it is made with vintage quality grapes.” 

There seems to be increasing interest in the top ports. Skelton reports that, after the general declaration of 2011, Noval made an eccentric declaration in 2012, and “we have never sold vintage Port faster”. He says: “When we sell our allocation we go back and ask for more, we manage to get a few cases but it is becoming more difficult. There’s new interest in vintage port in other markets.” 

New destinations

Symington agrees there’s interest from new export destinations. “The UK, US, Canada and Scandinavia are all key premium markets and doing well. Poland, Russia, Angola and Brazil are the trending markets.” 

What about Asia? Skelton says the big Asian markets have moved on amazingly since he started travelling to them in 1992. “There are great collectors of wine in Hong Kong and Singapore who have moved on from just Burgundy and Bordeaux, and some of them now want a great collection of vintage ports. They particularly like the fact that there are declared years, and some of these correspond with lucky years or birth years and that some years don’t exist creates more intrigue.” 

“I am very confident about the future of port,” says Symington. “We bought two new quintas in the past two years – many think we are mad. The future is good but it will be very different from the past.”

The sherry market is smaller than that of port, but is still significant, with a production of 4.6m 9-litre cases last year. Most sherry starts its life as a dry wine, but can be sweetened with the addition of Pedro Ximenez, a sweet sherry made from drying grapes in the sun after harvesting until they raisin. 

Pedro Ximenez, often referred to as PX, is increasingly popular as a sweet sherry in its own right, with its rich, concentrated, incredibly sweet raisiny flavours. “Sherry has two big markets – the home market and the UK – which are about the same size,” says Gonzalez Byass’ Skelton. 

“The Spanish market used to be utterly dominated by fino and manzanilla [the lightest, driest sherry styles], and suddenly saw a surge in interest in the sweet sherries in the 1990s and early noughties, driven by Canasta Cream (Williams & Humbert) and Solera 1847 (a sweet oloroso from Gonzalez Byass). The market is still there but hasn’t grown much since then.” 

He adds that the new interest in sweet wines in Spain is varietal PX. 

“The UK is about 85% sweet or medium sherries. Of that, by far the largest element is dark cream and pale cream,” he says. “About half of the sweet market is Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Croft Original, and the other half is supermarket own-label.” 

Beyond this, Skelton is encouraged by what is happening on the edges of the sweet sherry market. “We are finding quite a lot of success with PX in the London market especially,” he says, “both in the new wave of stylish eateries and also international restaurants. PX is a useful style as part of a repertoire to offer for desserts. Another thing that’s quite encouraging is that most supermarkets have created high-end own-label ranges, and certainly Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference, Tesco Finest and Waitrose Premium range have really well made, high-end sweet wines in them that do well.”

Space doesn’t permit an adequate discussion of other sweet wine styles, such as Vin Doux Naturels from the south of France, the Muscats from Samos in Greece, the beguiling sweet Madeiras, Australia’s amazing liqueur Muscats and Topaques, the thrilling German prädikat Rieslings and even the commercially successful Moscatos from the US. 

But it does seem that with a new generation of drinkers, more open than their predecessors to some sweetness in their wines, there’s still an important – and even a growing – market for sweet wines globally, and that they aren’t set to be consigned to the bin of history just yet.