As part of our sparkling winter mix this year, you will find a bottle of sweet white wine, made from old-vine Semillon grapes harvested in 2018. We think the name of ‘Le Sweet’ makes it reasonably clear what’s in the bottle – however, sweet wine is a famously confusing subject, so here’s a very quick guide to the different types of sweet wine (covering just white wines, in this case) followed by a few more details on our “Le Sweet”.
The chart below givers a general view of what types of wines and / or grapes you would typically associate with the different levels of sweetness. I say typically, because (for example) the grape variety ‘semillon’ listed under ‘dry’ below is commonly used in Bordeaux to make sweet wines, under the ‘late harvest’ category, as well as dry. Some words to look out for if you are seeking a sweet wine are ‘late harvest’, ‘noble rot’, ‘demi-sec’ (champagne), ‘auslese’, ‘BA’ or ‘TBA’ (German / Austrian sweet wines), or ‘ice wine/eiswein’
Sweet wines are in the range ‘off dry’ to ‘very sweet’, depending on how they are made. The main point to remember is that the sweetness is related to how much sugar versus juice is in the grape. Therefore, the higher the concentration of sugar, the sweeter the wine, and there are various ways to get that concentration, largely depending on where you are. Here are some examples;
– Late harvest wines where the grapes are left longer on the vine, in order so that they shrivel up and concentrate, and (hopefully) attract the famous ‘noble rot’ which concentrates further the juice and adds some deep, delicious flavours. Sauternes is probably the most famous ‘late harvest’ wine with German ‘Auslese’ and Hungarian ‘Tokai’ also examples.
– Straw mat wines where the grapes are harvested and left out on mats to shrivel and concentrate. Typically, only done in hot parts of Europe like Italy and Greece (and are called Passito and Vinsanto respectively)
– Ice wines are typically extremely sweet and luscious (and expensive). The concentration derives from the grapes freezing solid and being harvested and pressed whilst frozen resulting in tiny quantities of extremely sweet juice. This method would never work in Bordeaux as it simply does not get cold enough – most ice wines are made in Canada but some are made in the Alpine regions of Europe, and increasingly in China.
Back to our “Le Sweet”, then. When we picked this in 2018, we had a very long and dry autumn, which are not the ideal conditions for noble rot, as that needs autumn mists as well as sun. We picked the grapes on 12th November, extremely late but they were still in great shape – albeit with no rot – resulting in sweet but not-too-sweet wine with great balancing acidity. On our chart it would sit at the leftmost part of ‘sweet’ therefore. As a result, this is not a sauternes copy, but more of an all-purpose wine that can be drunk before or after a meal, with or without food, and we find it is particularly popular with people who like some sweetness but not the syrupy nature of very sweet wines.