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Savoring Sweet Wines

Americans are rediscovering sweet wines. In Europe they never went out of fashion. But in the U.S., sweet wines came to be associated with the cheap Muscatel of the disenfranchised and low quality “Rhine Wine” favored by the enologically uninitiated.

For decades, “dry” was the only way to go. Even the sweet cocktails of the past (Manhattans, Sidecars, Gimlets, Grasshoppers, Singapore Slings and the like) were pushed aside in favor of tart and salty Margaritas dry Martinis, and spirits taken straight up or on the rocks. Americans viewed sweet wines with some suspicion.

Beerenauslese, Tokaji Aszu, Vendenge Tardive, Eiswein… whoever even heard of them? We recognized Sauternes, Port, sweet Sherries, and Madiera – but we didn’t form long queues to purchase them.

Some of us chuckled when we learned that the Marquis de Laguiche, owner of the famed Chateau d’Yquem, went on record recommending his exceedingly sweet Sauternes as an ideal accompaniment to shellfish dishes and foie gras. Those comments were made decades ago and we are just now catching up to their real implications.

Hold on to your hats now, for a revelation: Sweet wines go better with many foods than dry. Not only the extravagantly sweet “dessert” wines already mentioned, but dry wines made with a sweet edge also.

Sweet wines, or wines containing “residual sugar,” are usually the result of stopping the fermentation before all the natural sugars in the grapes are converted to alcohol. When the desired level of sweetness is obtained, the wine undergoes sterile filtration to remove every trace of yeast, which could produce a secondary fermentation in the bottle and ruin the wine.

Naturally, grapes with high sugar content are best suited for sweet wines because winemakers usually aim for alcohol levels of 11% – 14%. Most grapes, when harvested normally, need all their sugars to produce such alcohol levels and are fermented to dryness in order to obtain them.


  1. They may be left on the vine for natural sugars to increase. This will allow reasonable alcohol levels to be achieved with enough residual sugar left to produce a sweet wine. The problem is that as sugar levels increase in the grape, acid levels drop. To obtain a good balance between acid and sugar is often very difficult. Wines made in this manner are often called “Late Harvest” wines, and may be made from the classic white varietals (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling) or red varietals (Zinfandel is most commonly used).
  2. Grapes may be left on the vines until their water content begins to evaporate and the flavors become concentrated. This procedure is especially associated with German wines, where specific levels of sweetness carry special designations: Kabinett (off-dry), Spätlese (sweet), Auslese (very sweet), Beerenauslese (extremely sweet), and Trockenbeerenauslese (nectar of the Gods).
  3. Grapes may be allowed to develop a mold called Botrytis Cinerea, which draws moisture from the grape, concentrates the flavors, and contributes some very appealing ones of its own. This is the procedure associated with Sauternes, Barsac, Tokay, and the sweetest German wines; also, many late harvest white wines.
  4. Grapes may be left on the vines until the first freeze. Ice forms on the grapes, drawing out moisture and concentrating the flavors. Such wines are called Ice Wine (in Germany, Eiswein), and are necessarily products of northern vineyards, primarily in Germany, Canada, and Washington State.
  5. Grapes may be harvested in the normal way, then artificially frozen to approximate Ice Wine. This process, less expensive and much less risky than the natural method, was pioneered by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, whose “Vin de Glaciere” offers an excellent alternative to expensive ice wines.
  6. Sugar may actually be added to finished wine. Almost all Champagnes and sparkling wines undergo this process, also known as “dosage.” This is not necessarily done to give the wines an impression of sweetness, but is used like seasoning to bring out the inherent flavors. Sparkling wines with no dosage are labelled “Natural.” The sweetness scale then progresses to Brut, Extra-dry, and Doux (increasingly sweet). Blanc de Blancs usually utilizes a small dosage; Blanc de Noirs, a little more.


Goat Cheese Tarts with a sweet Vouvray (Chenin Blanc)

Crab and Lobster dishes with a sweet Sauternes or Barsac

Paté with Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc or a sweet Riesling

Cheddar cheese or any blue-veined cheese with late harvest Zinfandel

Oriental dishes with an off-dry or sweet Gewürztraminer

Barbecued chicken with a moderately sweet Gewürztraminer or Riesling

Light cheeses, such as Swiss, with a Riesling Kabinett or Spätlese

Stilton cheese and Port is a well-known classic.


Many people attempt to create good food and wine pairings by matching sweet wines with sweet foods. Dessert wines are best taken as desserts in themselves, rather than as accompaniments to sweet foods. As in the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the sweetness in the wine is best complemented by savory and rich flavors. Be bold! Throw out the rules. Try some unlikely combinations. You might be amazed.

Hopefully, we’ve opened your eyes a bit to the idea of savoring a sweet wine. The next question, of course, is what will you drink it out of? Our personalized wine glasses can make any wine more enjoyable, sweet or dry. Easily customize our wine glasses with any text or image you desire. Our sandblasting technique is the premier glass engraving method, and results in custom wine glassesthat can last forever.


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