SARAH JANE EVANS MW finds stickies from around the world as noble as Sauternes and Tokaji offering a viable – and affordable – alternative
Sweet wine lovers are inclined to be defensive. It’s the result of all the years of criticism by tannin-loving traditionalists who don’t believe that sweet wines – or their drinkers – can be serious. (Left-bank claret lovers may make allowances for a Sauternes; Champagne drinkers for the very occasional demi-sec; Brunello devotees for an elegant Vin Santo.)
There are honourable exceptions to this rule of course – classic sweet wines that even red wine fans will sip: notably those from Tokaji, Alsace, the Loire, Germany, Italy and Austria. Today, the list of affordable, good quality Sauternes alternatives is lengthening. Fortunately, sweet wines are finding favour once more, and sweet wine enthusiasts dare to speak out, and drink up, without embarrassment.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, availability: EU trade barriers have been coming down, allowing Europeans to discover the sweet wines of South Africa and Canada, for instance.
Second, the restaurant trade: restaurateurs have discovered the financial as well as gastronomic benefits of offering sweet and fortified wines by the glass with dessert.
Third, winemakers: some of them have worked abroad and learnt techniques; others are experimenting with traditional techniques such as drying grapes on racks (known as vin de paille, or straw wines). In addition, the Vinoble wine show in Jerez, held every two years to celebrate fortified, dessert and natural sweet wines, held its biggest ever gathering in 2008.
It enabled sweet wine producers from around the world to come out of the closet, and offer the wines to an ever more interested public. Whatever the style of traditionally made sweet wine, there are basically three ways to concentrate sugar in grapes: botrytis or noble rot, which pierces the skin of the grape and releases the water; freezing (for more on ice wines, see p58); or by drying the grapes either on the vine or after they’ve been picked.
There’s an additional category where the wine is fortified either before (vin de liqueur) or during (vin doux naturel) fermentation. The wines here fall into one of these four categories, with a few exceptions. One thing uniting them all, though (as well as their novelty) is longevity – thanks to the high sugar content. Consequently, none have recommended drinking windows, though, once open, consume within a month to appreciate them at their best.
Zuccardi, Malamado, Mendoza 2004 ★★★
This fortified Malbec is ripe, fruity
and supple – a Port-style from
the Pampas. Its ageing in French
oak for two years has done
nothing to suppress its youthful
vigour. £12.70–£14.30; All, Coo, Evy
Campbell’s, Rutherglen Muscat, Victoria
The Muscats of Rutherglen are sadly
underrated. Sumptuously rich, fortified
wines, with plenty of rich, succulent
fruits, aged through a solera system.
£8.99; Odd, Wai
Turkey Flat Vineyards, Pedro Ximenez,
Barossa Valley, South Australia ★★★
A wine made from grapes raisined on the
vine, after the canes were cut. Fortified
and aged, the result is intense and fresh,
with crystallised orange and spices.
£12.99–£18.99 (375ml); AWO, Cmb, DrD,
Elx, FWC, Hai, Hax, Hed, Oli, Nid, Wai, You
Two Hands, Brilliant Disguise,
Barossa Valley, South Australia 2006 ★★★
A nod to Italy’s fine Moscatos. Nothing
complex: simply spritzy, light, floral,
grapey fruit. It’s not a classic sweet or
fortified wine, but deserves its place.
Inniskillin, Oak-Aged Vidal Icewine,
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario 2006 ★★★
Classic Vidal aromas of mango – opulent
and exotic. The oak gives an extra texture
to the mouth to increase complexity.
£47.50; DrD, Lai, Wmb
Inniskillin, Sparkling Ice Wine,
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario 2003 ★★★
An extraordinary curiosity. A glamorous
little bottle, intensely sweet, and then
overcome by a rush of fine bubbles,
created by the Charmat method, which
captures the fizz from fermentation.
Serve it cold, with cardamom-flavoured
white chocolate. £45 (375ml); Wai
Château Jolys, Cuvée Jean, Jurancon 2005
A deserved winner of Decanter’s 2008
Regional France Sweet Wine Under £10
Trophy (the price has nudged up since the
awards). It is made from raisined, airdried
grapes, giving peachy fruit flavours
lightened by bright acidity. £10.99; Wai
Domaine Vial-Magneres, Al Tragou, Très
Vieux Rancio, Banyuls 1985 ★★★★★
Grenache-based, with 5% Carignan,
Banyuls is another revelation from the
south-west corner of France. It’s a wine
that’s built for the long haul – even after
24 years this has a full-body and textured
mid-palate, with notes of caramelised
orange peel, chocolate and almonds. Try it
with sea-salt chocolate, or a chocolate
sponge pudding. £32.67; Dyn, Ouf
Domaine Pouderoux, Vendange Tardive,
Maury 2002 ★★★★
Maury is known as the wine for
chocolate, and it’s particularly good with
chocolate desserts flavoured with
raspberry or redcurrant. There’s a delicate
tannic structure running through this
which prevents it from being merely
sweet and cloying. £9.99 (500ml); Wai
Domaine Rancy-Verdaguer, Rivesaltes
Ambre 1991 ★★★★
Macabeu with 5% of white Grenache
added, this is still astonishingly youthful,
with an intense and spicy mid palate and
a full, nutty toffee finish. POA; RdW
Château Aydie, Maydie Tannat,
Madiran 2006 ★★★
The name comes from a terrible pun
based on the fact that this wine is a good
match to rich chocolate dishes – hence
you ‘May Die’ having both. Look past the
pun; it’s an interesting fortified Tannat,
blending good texture and sweetness.
Château de Mascaraas, Pacherenc du Vic
Bilh 2006 ★★★
Lively, full-bodied and uncomplicated,
these spicy, floral, minerally late-harvest
wines are the white appellation of Madiran,
made from Gros and Petit Manseng,
Arrufiac and Petit Corbu. 12.95, WSo
Hatzidakis, Vinsanto, Santorini, Greece
Succulent, with roasted apricots and
toasted nuts, a fine-textured palate and
brisk darts of refreshing acidity. Grown on
Santorini’s volcanic soils by the island’s
leading winemaker; made from Assyrtiko
anad Aidani. £11.50 (375ml); Cdn
Anthemis, Muscat of Samos 2007 ★★★
From the island co-op of Samos, one of a
selection of very individual Muscats.
Anthemis was fortified, and then matured
in 500l French oak barriques. The result is
full of dried fruits and nuts, against a
background of caramelised orange.
Forrest Estate, Late-Harvest Riesling
Marlborough 2007 ★★★
A rare Kiwi wine on this list, chosen
because (so far) it’s the country’s standout
late-harvest wine, from Marlborough
stalwart John Forrest. It’s a classically
Germanic, low-alcohol style (8.5%), with
plenty of apple fruit. £9.99 (375ml); Adn
Curin Prapotnik, Laski Rizling Prestige
Icewine, Podravje 2005 ★★★★★
This wine won Decanter’s 2008 Regional
Central European Sweet Wine Over £10
Trophy. It has vivid, tropical fruit
expression, with notes of pepper, lifted by
crisp acidity. £69.90; LVt
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2002
Recommended by Jane Austen in Sense
and Sensibility as a cure for a broken
heart, this wine (still in its traditional
bottle) comes from one of the Cape’s
historic wine estates. Very rich, it’s more
fat than fresh, showing honey backed by
a cleansing acid crunch. A rare treat.
£25 (500ml); F&M, Maj, Wai
Paul Cluver, Noble Late-Harvest Weisser
Riesling, Elgin 2007 ★★★★
The good Dr Cluver’s family businesscontinues to develop with the changing
times, but this NLH remains charmingly
unchanged. Dried apricot, bitter marmalade
and a hint of spice mark the immensely
rich, full body, yet it’s delicately sweet at
125g/l (grams per litre) of residual sugar.
£9.99 (375ml); DBy, Lay, Wai
Tierhoek, Straw Wine,
Piekenierskloof 2006 ★★★★
At 760m above sea level, this relatively
new project has the altitude for real
freshness. In this first vintage of the
straw wine, Adam Mason, the winemaker
at Klein Constantia (see above), lent a
hand. It’s rich and full-bodied, with plenty
of honeyed apricots. £14.95 (375ml); WSo
Tulbagh, Vin Pi Two, Western Cape
Vin Pi – as in vin de paille, geddit? – is
made from old-vine Chenin, mainly from
the Swartland, the grapes dried then
fermented for up to a year in oak. Without
topping, the wine slowly oxidises. After
fermentation it is introduced to a solera,
started in 2003. This wine is succulent, at
286g/l of residual sugar, but also fresh
and lively, with notes of dried stone fruits,
honey and marzipan. One to watch,
especially as the solera ages. POA; RdW
Lustau, Moscatel de Chipiona, Jerez
There’s a little pot of gold in the corner of
most Sherry houses labelled Moscatel.
There’s isn’t much of it in the shops, and
it’s a forgotten treasure. Chipiona is the
town where the top Moscatel comes
from. Scented, succulent, and not
especially complicated but, like Sherry,
great value. £4.49 (500ml); Wai
Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega, Casta Diva
Moscatel, Alicante 2006 ★★★★
The Casta Diva wines are an exceptional,
honeyed expression of the Moscatel
grape. The winery has also revived
Fondillón, the traditional fortified red
made from Monastrell, with a minimum
of 10 years’ ageing. POA @ Fah, Hed, L&S
Telmo Rodriguez, Molino Real,
Mountain Wine, Malaga 2005 ★★★★
Rodriguez has been a pioneer in reviving
the old vineyards of Spain. This is the big
brother to the MR Moscatel, also from
Malaga, and shows it in the spicey, grapey
complexity. £23.99 (500ml); Adn
Bodegas Castano, Monastrell Dulce,
Yecla 2005 ★★★
A fine example of the revival of Spanish
winemaking, it’s a sumptuous balance of
sweet plum and cherry fruit, saved from
sweetness by a firm grip of tannin.
£12.95–£13.80 (500ml); But, Ult, WoI,
Jorge Ordoñez, Seleccion Especial no1
Moscatel, Malaga 2006 ★★★
Jorge Ordonez is one of the hottest
names in Spain at present. The late Alois
Kracher, Austria’s sweet wine guru,
worked with him on this project, where
the grapes were dried on the vines.
Supple, with honey and sweet spice, and
an acerbic undertone of bitter marmalade
oranges. £12.99 (375ml) Ind, L&W, Vik
SUGAR AND SPICE AND ALL THINGS ICE
What sets ice wine apart from other sweet wines is the freezing of the grapes. This concentrates the acidity, as well as the extract, and means that these wines can taste deliciously fresh as well as incredibly sweet – particularly true of German Rieslings.
In general, authorities are looking for temperatures of -8˚C before harvest can start. In essence, the grapes freeze on the vine and are picked first thing in the morning. But increasingly the calendar has been interrupted or postponed as the recent upheavals in climatic activity take their toll.
Canada has a much higher requirement for initial sweetness of its Icewines (written as one word in 630 grams per litre of sugar. This accounts for the fact that Canada’s Icewines are so remarkably sweet. All Canada’s Icewines are made from vitis vinifera grapes, with the exception of the arguably less appealing hybrid Vidal.
Ice wines are – or have been – made in Oregon, Michigan, Luxembourg, Croatia and Slovenia, among other spots. Croatia and Slovenia both won Golds at the 2008 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) while a Laski Riesling from Slovenia won the Over £10 Sweet Wine Regional Trophy (see above).
For producers, the warmer winters are a serious concern: Slavko Prapotnik, of the Trophy-winning winery, says ‘-7C is just not enough. It’s a prescribed minimum (in Slovenia) but not enough for quality ice wine.’ Does this apparent in winter pose a serious threat? Robert Gorjak, wine writer and Regional Chair for Slovenia in 2009 says:
‘I’m not sure if the recent phenomena is actually “global warming”. It could just be temporary. But the timeframe is shifting toward January, and there is less ice wine produced compared to 20 years ago. If the recent trend continues, Slovenian ice wines might become a rare commodity.’
He adds: ‘As picking occurs later, the grapes start to dry naturally. Greater care and selection is needed. As a result, the style is changing to a more concentrated character. Compromises are needed – optimal conditions of -14°C are rare. On the other hand, with better winemaking and better selection in vineyards, ice wines are getting more precise.
This has nothing to do with global warming and plenty to do with ageing in partially used oak barrels.’ Tony Aspler, author and DWWA Regional Chair for Canada, takes a
reasonably upbeat view: ‘We are blessed with a climate that can produce Icewine consistently, year after year. Not a single vintage has been missed since Ontario began making Icewine in 1983.
Last year was one of the coldest winters in the province, with below average temperatures and above average snow. So there is no real concern that Icewine is in danger from global warming.’
Aspler sees trouble coming from a different direction: ‘The real threat is the
incipient Chinese Icewine industry that can make the product far cheaper and capture Canada’s Far East market as aresult.’ He adds: ‘Given the escalating cost of Icewine, many consumers are opting for Special Select Late Harvest wines, a sweetness level just below Icewine, for half the price.’
It is undoubtedly true that the cost and scarcity of ice wines has made them luxury items, bought frequently for theirvalue rather than their quality. Just because the wine is harvested later in the year does not mean it is the best; novelty is not always the best policy. Still, Canada offers the adventurous Icewine drinker plenty of opportunities, with wines also made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
If winters do warm up, all is not lost. Just as grapes may be sprayed with botrytis spores to induce the infection, cryoextraction – freezing – will also do the trick for ice wines. The Sauternes producers such as Château d’Yquem make use of it. The romance may be lost, the complexity of flavour may disappear, but wine from frozen grapes will remain viable.
Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW