“The wine of kings and the king of wines”
Would you be surprised to learn that the first demarcated wine region in the world was not dedicated to serious reds or fine whites but sweet wines? Tokaj in Eastern Hungary produces sweet wines that once graced both the French and Russian royal courts and were referred to as ‘the wine of kings and the king of wines.’ Since sweet wines are largely under-appreciated, especially considering how expensive they are to make, we’ve taken the time to break down sweet wines styles and why theses formative and influential wines are worthy of their place amongst the finest wines in the world.
Fortified wine is perhaps the most commonly known sweet wine type. Fortifieds are created by adding grape spirits to wine during the fermentation process to arrest fermentation and retain the natural sweetness of the wine. Fortification in the winemaking process is used in the production of port styles as well as Madeira, marsala, muscat, sherry, topaque and vermouth.
Port comes in many styles. It can be broadly categorised into two, cask-aged or bottle-aged. Either process can take decades, but once barrel-aged port (or port-style wines) are bottled they are ready for immediate consumption while their bottle ageing cousins spend just a couple of years in barrel and so must wait out the rest of their time after bottling. The Hundred of Moorooroo Special Edition Fortified is a prime example of a barrel-aged fortified wine having spent almost 30 years in barrel before bottling the wine was ready for your enjoyment immediately upon release.
Perhaps the highest indicator of quality in a sweet wine is the very specific winemaking style of botrytized wine. Botrytis bunch rot is a fungal disease that, of all vine diseases, has the most potential to affect wine quality. While the malevolent form known as grey rot can have disastrous effects on both yield and quality, the benevolent form when developed in white grapes under precise conditions is known as the noble rot and is responsible for some of the finest sweet wines in the world.
Noble rot wines are the most complex and longest-lived of all the sweet, white tables wines. the region that is perhaps the most synonymous with high-quality sweet botrytis wines is the French district of Sauternes although many regions produce fine examples, especially in the New World. The winemaking process for botrytized grapes is painstaking in every stage. In simple terms, noble rot is crucial to quality but can develop at different times in different bunches resulting in wildly varied harvesting times from bunch to bunch. Vineyards require multiple passes to harvest completely, one vineyard in the Sauternes district in 1974 was passed through for harvest some 11 times! Pressing the juice from the grapes is also difficult as the disease dehydrates the grapes, leading to lower yields. Then again, fermenting is a difficult process as the juice is higher in natural sugar and antibiotics and lower in nutrients creating an environment that seems purpose-built to inhibit yeasts. Botrytised wines are at greater risk of second fermentation and oxidation. These wines rarely fetch prices that justify the additional production costs. So why make them?
Noble rot grapes “have undergone such a complex transformation that they are capable of producing probably the world’s finest, and certainly the longest-living sweet wines.” (Robinson et. al. 2015) The grape is dehydrated by about 50% by the fungus which results in concentrated flavours. The fungus also consumes about 30% of the sugar in the grapes but a whopping 70% of the acids. In metabolising these sugars and acids the fungus forms a wide variety of chemical compounds in the grape juice and begins to break down compounds in the grape skin so that the tannin content is significantly reduced. The result is a sublime, finely balanced sweet wine.
Icewine, although originating in Germany as Eiswein, is the crown jewel of Canadian winemaking. In both Canada and Germany, as well as a few other countries that produce the style, the production is the same. Grapes that have been frozen on the vine are harvested and pressed while still frozen. The ice crystals remain in the press, leaving behind unwanted water and concentrating the sugars, acidity and other flavour compounds resulting in a honeyed wine with fruit flavours ranging from citrus to tropical. A frost of at least -8 degrees Celsius is required for Icewine, and grapes are often harvested between five and eight in the morning.
Late harvest sweet wines, like our Dolce Far Niente Late Harvest Semillon, are wines made from grapes left on the vine so that the berries are naturally rich in sugar. Late harvest wines vary wildly in sweetness as a winemaker has more room for expression by deciding their optimal harvest time. Late harvest wines may be rich and quite dry, syrupy and decadently sweet or anything in between. Our late harvest Semillon maintains a lovely balance between sweetness and acidity, and tastes of honey, lemon and almond.
Winemakers around the world are creating a vast variety of sweet wines that suit a remarkable number of occasions. Why not explore some top quality sweet wines and savour a richness and complexity that is unparalleled in any other wine style?
-Wine Folly. ‘9 “Serious” Sweet Wines You Must Try’. https://winefolly.com/tips/9-serious-sweet-wines-you-must-try/. Madeline Puckette, December 8th 2020.
-Decanter. “What is Icewine? Ask Decanter“. https://www.decanter.com/learn/ice-wine-46322/. Ellie Douglas. July 31, 2018.
-“The Oxford Companion to Wine”. Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. Oxford University Press. 2015.
-“The 24-hour Wine Expert“. Jancis Robinson. 2016. Abrams Image, an imprint of ABRAMS.
The Hundred of Moorooroo Limited Edition Fortified is a golden caramel elixir that was hand-harvested late in the season from luscious Pedro Ximenez grapes barrel-aged for almost three decades. A small edition of very late harvest old vine Grenache rounds out this ambrosial blend.
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