Hey, That’s Sweet: The Making of Dessert Wine

Let’s admit it. No matter our eating habits the rest of the year, when it comes to the holidays, there are simply too many baked goods to refuse. Cookies, pies, chocolate–they’re everywhere, from the desserts on your holiday table to the homemade cookies your co-worker brought to the office.

Even the wines get a little sweeter this time of year. Face it, with all that dessert, the dry, smoky red that you sipped with your meal simply won’t pair well with the last course.

Dessert wines are met with a difference of opinion–some people love them, some people hate them. But regardless of your views, do you know how sweet wines are made?

Contrary to popular belief, sweet wines are not made by adding sugar to the wine. In fact, this is actually not permitted in the production of quality wine. What is allowed, however, is the addition of grape must, or süssreserve–essentially, it’s the grape juice before the sugar has been converted to alcohol. This can be added in controlled amounts after fermentation has taken place and usually must come from the same grapes that were pressed to make the wine. It is commonly done with sweet German wines.

Another option is to concentrate the sugar from the start so that there is still some left over after the wine is made. In my article last week, I mentioned that yeasts are responsible for changing sugar into alcohol during the winemaking process. The fermentation ends naturally when the yeasts die; yet, alcohol, the very thing the yeasts work to create, actually kills the yeasts once the concentration reaches a certain level (the 11-15% or so alcohol by volume that you’re used to seeing printed on the bottle). When this happens, the yeasts can no longer work their magic, and so any sugar left will contribute to a sweetness in the wine.

Boosting sugar levels before the fermentation can be achieved in a number of ways. Some winemakers allow the grapes to dry out until they raisin, as is done in Italy for the making of Amarone. The grapes shrivel as they lose water and the sugar in each grape becomes more concentrated. Extreme cold will achieve the same effect: freezing grapes means that when the grapes are pressed, the resulting grape juice will receive more sugar and less water from each grape, as the frozen water stays behind with the skins and other solid materials. This is how icewine in Canada and eiswein in Germany are made. Finally, grape sugars can be concentrated by botrytis, more commonly known as noble rot, a fungal disease that infects grapes only under very specific conditions: wet, humid mornings, followed by warm, dry afternoons (common in Hungary, where Tokaji is made). This causes a particular type of rot in the grapes that concentrates the sugars. Imagine, a disease that actually helps the grapes!

Keeping in mind that any leftover sugar in the wine after the fermentation will make for a sweet wine, it makes sense that stopping the fermentation early means that some of the sugar won’t be converted to alcohol. This is commonly done by adding spirit to the fermenting grape juice, which kills the yeasts before they are able to finish. What’s left is a wine with a high concentration of sugar–and alcohol, thanks to the high alcohol percentage in most spirits. This is also one way of creating a fortified wine, such as port. The end product? A sweet, high alcohol wine.

Just as some people have a tendency to favor chocolate desserts or fruity ones, you may find one type of sweet wine  more palate-pleasing than another (and, likewise, some will pair better with certain desserts than with others). This holiday season, whether you already have a dessert wine that you like, or think you don’t like them at all, give a different one a try–you may end up with a sweet surprise.

Sherry Stolar

Sherry's most memorable experiences have always been when she puts herself out of her comfort zone - she loves the challenge of a new place, a new culture, new people. First bitten by the travel bug during an internship with NBC at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, she then lived in London for six months, using the city as a base for exploring Europe. Following her graduation from Cornell University in 2007, she moved back to the UK and continued traveling extensively. An expired visa brought her back to the US a year later, specifically New York City, where she lasted in the hustle of the corporate world for two years before taking a leap of faith and moving across the country to Napa Valley to pursue a career in the wine industry. Currently, her day job is with a wine marketing agency, and she is also working towards a Diploma with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, from which she already holds an Advanced Certificate. In her spare time, Sherry loves to cook, specifically with vegetarian, healthy ingredients. She continues to explore new places whenever possible, even if it's something as simple as a weekend away or visiting a vineyard in the wine country she currently calls home, which she blogs about at www.coasttotoast.blogspot.com.

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