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- This article is written by a journalist on a journey of discovery - and on a mission to learn about wine.

By John Elmes

I touched on sweet wines in my last WSET Level 2 article when writing about the production of Vins doux Naturels, specifically Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from France.

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Southern France in particular is home to two important examples in the sweet wines catalogue. I have already mentioned Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and the other is Muscat de Rivesaltes. The Muscat grape is well suited for sweet wine, giving fragrant, floral and fresh fruit flavours – try saying that five times in a row. Peach, grape and rose are typical aromas and tastes. As Muscat wines generally forego oak ageing, the fresh fruit is instantly recognisable. Jim, our tutor, says you do get plenty of ‘Muscat aromas’ on the nose and ‘peach and apricot’ on the palate in Beaumes de Venise. He likened it to children’s favourite yoghurt: Petit Filous. Just with alcohol. A tasting note that could catch on amongst the wine cognoscenti.

Further north-west in Bordeaux, which needs no introduction, we have the Graves sub-region. Here lies the Sauternes appellation, a world-renowned sweet wine. Sémillon is the principle player, though it’s often blended with Sauvignon Blanc – something you may recall from my Sauvignon Blanc article. This is important because you should not believe Bordeaux produces only dry or sweet wines with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends. It has both.

The difference in this case is that the thin-skinned Sémillon is prone to noble rot – a natural process whereby botrytis cinerea fungus grows ‘on the outside of the grape, punctures the grape itself and the water is allowed to evaporate’. Sauternes wines therefore bear ‘botrytis’ flavours, which are varied and hard to characterise, but include honey and ryebread. Strange attributes, I know. Jim also points out that where Sauternes differ from other noble rot wines, is the ‘vanilla, toast, spicy’ flavours gained from oak ageing.

Chenin Blanc, a grape common in the Loire, is also partial to noble rot. The Vouvray AOC and Coteaux de Layon AOC are the notable wines from this grape. Alsace, due east and slightly north from the Loire, also makes botrytis-affected sweet wines using Muscat, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer or Riesling grapes.

With near seamless transitioning we move from France to Germany via their mutual relationship with noble rot-friendly Riesling. Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz, the major regions for Riesling, also produce dry wines from this varietal. I’m focusing on the wines from the Beerenauslese (BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein Prädikat sweetness levels. To make either BA or TBA wines, the potential sweetness levels have to be extremely high and is measured in their must weight. This can only be achieved with an element of noble rot.

‘Most of the time Riesling is unoaked so tastes of marmalade, toast, honey – coming from the noble rot – and the Riesling grape,’ says Jim. BA and TBA production are just a couple of examples of Jim’s ‘favourite way to make a sweet wine’ – by concentrating the sugars in the grapes. Trockenbeerenauslese is wine produced from grapes that are ‘left to dry on the vine’.

Eiswein, which is incredibly expensive to produce, involves harvesting frozen grapes in winter and removing the iced water from them. Jim says the labour costs are high because your winery also has to have freezing equipment, so it doesn’t warm the grapes up before the ice crystals are removed.

Before I leave this topic, there is just one example from Italy we were told about: Recioto. It was mentioned almost an afterthought, and I had to look up where it came from (Veneto, I believe and is most commonly seen in Valpolicella and Soave). Recioto has come from grapes which have been laid out to dry in the sun like ‘sun-dried tomatoes’. ‘You’ve just concentrated all of the sugar, all of the acidity, all of that flavour. So if you see Recioto, it’s a really sweet style,’ said Jim.

Tell me 12 weeks ago there exists a sweet, red dessert wine, and I’d have laughed at you. Now I raise a glass Recioto Valpolicella to the WSET; and it goes surprisingly well with dark chocolate.

Interested in studying for a WSET qualification like John? Learn more here.


  • Venice Day Trips

    Super article – I really enjoyed it. Just a small note on the grapes used to produce the Recioto della Valpolicella. The grapes are dried in a well-ventilated room, but not in the sun. The same for the grapes destined to become Amarone della Valpolicella.
    Looking forward to reading more of your articles.