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Sweet wines: an introduction to these unfashionable gems   

Sadly sweet wines have had bad PR over recent decades, and it’s now seen as a social faux pas in many circles to admit to liking your wine in anything other than a bone dry style. So sweet wines get a raw deal, relegated to the end of meals accompanying dessert, or forgotten altogether. But they’re worth discovering in their own right, and represent some of the wine world’s most interesting, exciting and down-right tasty gems. And they are not just for maiden aunts or portly academics, either. Here’s my personal guide to some of the sweet wines that are worth checking out.

Let’s begin with Port, possibly the world’s most famous sweet wine. Hailing from the spectacular Douro valley in Portugal, it’s made by stopping the fermentation of red wine part way through by the addition of brandy, thus retaining some natural sweetness from the grapes. This spirit addition also raises the alcohol to around 20%, which helps preserve the wine against microbial contamination (hence the term ‘fortified’). 

There are a confusing number of Port styles and categories. It’s probably best to avoid Ruby and Vintage Character, the cheapest styles. A step up the quality ladder is Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): of these, I’d recommend looking for wines labelled ‘traditional’ or ‘crusted’ LBVs, because these wines often give the character of true Vintage Port at a fraction of the price. At the top of the tree is Vintage Port, the top wines from particularly good vintages bottled after just a couple of years in cask. These need long ageing (although some people quite like them young) and will throw a thick deposit in the bottle, so need decanting. As a slightly cheaper alternative, Single Quinta Ports are wines from individual estates that are made in years that haven’t been declared as vintage. They can often be just as good, and also require decanting. Leading producers include Taylor, Fonseca, Niepoort, Warre, Dow, Graham, Noval and Churchill.

In a different style, Tawny ports are those that have been aged for a long time in wood. With age they attain a mellow nutty, spicy character: particularly worth seeking out are the 10 year old and 20 year old tawnies, and also the Colheitas (vintage dated Tawny wines that are particularly popular in Portugal). As a general rule, the longer they spend in wood, the lighter in colour they become and the more mellow and complex the resulting wine. Port is the classic after dinner drink, when it typically comes out with the cheese course, but it’s also something that can be drunk alone any time.

Staying in the Iberian peninsula but switching countries to Spain, Sherry is another fortified wine style that’s worth getting to know. Most top sherries are dry, but there are a few sweet styles worth investigating. Sherries labelled Pedro Ximenez, made from air-dried grapes, are extremely sweet and viscous with flavours of liquidized raisins. These remarkable, unctuous wines are incredible, but won’t be to everyone’s taste. They work well poured over ice cream. Hidalgo, Valdespino and Gonzalez Byas make really good examples. Other seriously tasty sweet sherries include Gonzalez Byas’ Matusalem and Lustau’s Old East India. The great thing about sherry is that it is undervalued, and you usually get a lot more than you pay for.

If you like these sweet sherry styles, then you’ll probably also like the famous Rutherglen Muscats from Australia. These are ultra-sweet, complex raisiny wines that take on a deep brown colour from extended ageing in casks. They’re lovely, but because they are so rich and intense you’d probably feel as sick as a pig if you drank a whole bottle. Perfect with rich fruit cake.

If you want something sweet but a bit lighter, perhaps suitable for matching with fruity desserts, then sweet muscats from the south of France might be the answer. These are usually fresh, grapey, aromatic wines with a lovely freshness that counteracts the sweetness well. They’re very affordable, too. Muscat de Baumes de Venise is the most famous, but Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de St Jean de Minervois are also good.

Botrytis is the key to the success of many of the world’s most famous sweet wines. Also known as ‘noble rot’, Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that under the right conditions attacks already-ripe grapes, shrivelling them, concentrating the sweetness and acidity. The grapes end up looking disgusting but they make profound sweet white wines, of which Sauternes is the most famous example. The resulting wines are sweet and quite viscous, with complex apricot, honey and spice flavours and good balancing acidity. If you can’t stretch to good Sauternes, then the best wines of Saussignac and Monbazillac can offer the same sorts of flavours. I find these wines show best on their own: most desserts overwhelm the subtleties that you are paying all your money for.

Also relying on botrytis for its complexity but made in a different way is Hungary’s famous sweet wine, Tokaji. The nobly rotted grapes are made into a paste that is then added to the base wine, adding sweetness and flavour. Wines from Tokaji aren’t cheap, but they are unique with complex honey, marmalade and raisiny flavours, often with a hint of oxidation.

This is just a brief introduction to the variety of sweet wine styles. There are many other worthy wines that have not been mentioned here, including the great German noble-rotted Riesling Trockenbeerenauslesen, sweet Loire Chenin Blancs, and the rare Eisweins. My advice? Buy yourself something sweet and give your tastebuds something they’ve always wanted.

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