Our dear friend, Chef Andrew Ormsby, always calls any dessert wine “stickies” and so the saying stuck for sweet wines including sparkling and still, fortified and botrytized. Though not my go-to daily, I do enjoy a good sticky on occasion, as they can help finish a meal beautifully (often the best when paired with nicely aged blue cheese.) From Sauternes, Sherry, and Port, to Moscato, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and more, there are a plethora of options to help put a sweet ending on your night.
(And a side note, in the world of wine, you can really only say a wine is “sweet” if it is actually a dessert wine. Though a dry wine may be fruity, giving the palate the perception of sweetness, you can’t describe it as so. With that, I am overusing the descriptor in this post, as it is one of my few opportunities to do so.)
The sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes shine as beauties of Bordeaux. Produced by allowing ripened Semillon, along with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, to rest on the vines to the point of botrytis, also known as noble rot, shriveling to an almost raisin-like consistency, diluting acidity and concentrating their honey-filled juices to create sweet, syrupy gold. The key to great Sauternes is careful picking. Over the course of weeks to months hand-selected fruit is harvested, with some pickers making dozens of passes to harvest the fruit that has succumbed to the effects of botrytis.
This laborious endeavor does mean some selections are priced at a premium, like the famous Chateau d’Yquem ($400/750ml) in Sauternes, but you can also find affordable selections, like Chateau Coutet ($70/750ml) in Barsac, Sauternes Chateau Rieussec ($50/375ml), or from Loupiac, Chateau Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac ($35/750ml) layering dried apricot and peach with orange blossom honey.
Port, Madeira, and Sherry are all produced by fortifying what could otherwise become a dry wine. However, though the process of fortification, or adding a distilled spirit (usually grape brandy) to fermenting wine, is the same throughout the world, the resulting products are completely different.
Within Portugal’s Douro Valley, Port wines have been prized for centuries. Fortification helped with the preservation of wine, a key element that helped with trade, as the first Port wines were sent to England in the 12th Century. Over the next several centuries the port trade grew to a thriving business, particularly in the 1700s. Barrels of the fortified wine could be shipped across the Atlantic without concern of oxidation, in fact, fortification before these long sea voyages was found to enhance the flavor and stability of wines.
Another element that helped secure the growth of the Port trade with England was the actual wine. The process of adding the distilled spirit to wine during fermentation created wines with high alcohol, and a high sugar content, something English palates at the time desired. Over the years, Port houses, such as the Symington family who owns some of the most respected producers in the Douro, including Dow’s, Graham’s, and Cockburn’s, have perfected the process, producing elegant, elevated wines that tell the story of the land.
A “field blend” of varieties like Touriga National, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, and Tinta Cao, grown on rugged, steep, terraced vineyards of schist soils rising up from the Douro River, the base wines that are then fortified into Port are powerful, intense, and aromatic. These are tannic varieties, meaning that quality producers, like the Symington’s, allow their Port wines to age either in the barrel, producing Tawny, or in the bottle, creating Late Bottle Vintage Port, or LBV. I am a fan of both but love a richly aged Tawny. With similar characteristics of a well-aged scotch, layering toffee, honey, dried orange peel, toasted hazelnuts, and caramel, Graham’s 20 Year Tawny Port ($50) is simply a thing of beauty, and ideally enjoyed on its own as this is all the dessert you need to be completely satiated.
Sherry can range from very, very dry Palomino Fino to sweet PX and cream styles, with the later two showcasing the raisin and caramel filled richness of the Pedro Ximenez variety. From overly ripe grapes that have been dried in the sunshine of Spain, PX is one of the sweetest wines produced in the world. Add in an oxidative aging process, concentrating the flavors, and you the resulting wine is highly complex, rich, and delicious. From Gonzalez Byass, Nectar PX Dulce Sherry ($30) layers dried fruit notes of raisins and dates, with honey, fig preserves, and candied fruit, melding together with bitter chocolate, toasted coffee, cocoa and black licorice with a velvety palate that ends with a note of freshness, keeping the wine inviting.
Though not technically considered a “sweet wine” low-alcohol, slightly effervescent Moscato leans to the sweeter side with layers of tropical mango and guava, allspice and anise, and lemon blossom. Though produced throughout the world, quality Moscato wines shine in Italy’s Piemonte region of Asti. From vineyards averaging 40 years old in Asti’s Castiglione Tinella, Vietti crafts their Moscato d’Asti DOCG ($15) revealing a highly aromatic wine melding apricots, tea rose, golden peach, and ginger with a touch of naturally occurring CO2, 5% alcohol, and a bright pop of acidity. An easy wine to sip throughout a leisurely brunch, or enjoy with creamy desserts like creme brulee.