When we are children, good things are fairly easy to spot and to agree upon. If something is hilarious and makes us laugh, it is generally agreed to be a Good Thing. Tom and Jerry, Dustin, Basil Brush, Toy Story, iCarly or Peppa Pig; Winnie the Pooh or Artemis Fowl, depending on your vintage.
Food and drink are early vehicles for breaking up that childhood consensus on a Good Thing. While custard, chocolate, Lemonade and fizzy orange are undoubtedly Good Things, their sweetness is their downfall and is the beginning of a lifelong conditioning for most children to accept that sticky sweet things though alluring, are foolish choices and that meat, fruit and a myriad of sour things are much better.
By the time we enter adulthood, sweetness has become totally hot-wired into our sensibilities, even at a barely conscious level, as a part of our puerile desires and a Bad Thing.
As we settle into adulthood, bitterness, sourness and tastes that have to be acquired to be enjoyed are prioritised as indicators of sophistication and maturity.
In wine this is to be seen over the last decade or so manifesting itself in a mass movement towards a narrower and narrower set of wine styles, specifically those that exhibit incredible levels of acidity, austerity and basically sourness.
In the world of wine a few, mainly UK wine critics, seem to have seised on this sweet/sour battle as a way of attacking US influence over wine.
US writers, particularly Robert Parker are accused of dumbing down wines by praising fruit-bombs, ultra-ripe, sweet so called Parkerised wines.
This has slowly drifted through the entire wine industry, with wineries lining up to show how they have rejected the evils of succulence and sweetness.
This has reached dizzying heights over the last four years with the arrival of the phrase, Unwooded, code for saying that you will find no richness here, just pure austere fruit..
What we are now told to value however is not sweetness, but purity, minerality and austerity.
And here is the problem.
Having driven a generation of wine consumers towards the virtues of ultra clean Pinot Grigio, lean, fresh Chardonnay and zingingly acidic Sauvignon Blanc, the question that troubles most wine producers of sweet wines is whether it is too late to offer the complexity and joyousness of something sweet on the palate and in the glass.
A Walk On The Sweet Side
I suppose if there is a good time to try and lure a few hardened acidity addicts back to the Sweet Side, Christmas is the time to do it.
This time of year is the last little corner of public life that still allows us to enjoy sweetness in an almost unapologetic way.
Of course, it is all predicated on the underlying understanding that this is a season that momentarily permits adults to enjoy childishness and puerile antics.
That said then what we need to do is re-acquaint ourselves with the joys of a sweet alphabet.
Sweet wines are not an after thought in the wine world, they represent an astonishing commitment to an ideal of luxury and joy over short term reward.
Sweet wines are made when you can make wines that have sugar left over in your final wine after the fermentation has ceased.
This occurs in two ways, by having a high sugar content in your original grapes indicating incredible ripeness or by increasing the proportion of the grape that is sugar over that which is water.
A grape is mainly water, but the pulp of the grape contains a variety of sugars, minerals and proteins. If you can reduce the amount of water then the resultant wine will be sweeter than if it is diluted with a large juicy crop.
To make sweet wines you need to reduce the water content or increase the sugar. Increasing the sugar is fraudulent, unnatural practice that is also illegal in most wine producing regions. So the answer is to dry out the grape, to get rid of the water.
Three ways of doing this without additives have been found over the centuries, the first and still regarded as the best and most noble method is to use grapes that have been attacked by a mould called Botrytis which rots the grapes and causes them to dry and shrivel up. The attacked or Noble Rotted grapes produce a golden treacle like juice that ferments into some of the worlds greatest sweet wines such as Sauternes from France, Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and Austria or Tokaji in Hungary.
The grapes attacked by Botrytis are truly disgusting to look at and are a result of a miraculous combination of natural effects.
For the Botrytis to grow and attack the grapes you need misty mornings, but in order for this not to progress to a gooey, grey rot, rather similar to how an over ripe banana or strawberry will end up, you need warm, drying afternoons. And all this has to happen after the grapes have ripened in the first place.
The result is that only a handful of places on the planet have the exactly right geographic and meteorological circumstances. Basically they need to be in warm continental climate zones, with large bodies of water and low winds that will produce early morning mists yet be hot enough to burn off in the afternoon.
The second way of getting rid of water in grapes in order to leave more sugar per grape is the Italian method of drying the grapes after harvest, this is the basis for Vin Santo. The grapes are laid out on bamboo mats in attics and specially constructed hot rooms across northern Italy and Tuscany for 3 months, being ready to make sweet wines from the first months of the new year.
Lastly you can reduce the amount of water by allowing the grapes to freeze.
This is what occurs in Germany and in Canada. The frozen grapes are then individually picked and crushed, with the frozen water, floating off as ice leaving the sugar rich pulp ready to make sweet wine.
All three methods are hugely labour intensive and expensive, largely because you are reducing the volume of juice you get from each vine in order to get enough sugar.
A regular vineyard, producing a dry wine will produce about 5,000 bottles from 1 hectare, more if you are in a poorer quality area that allows higher yields. That is about 3 bottles per vine. A sweet wine maker like Chateau D’Yquem famously manages to make about 1 glass of wine from each whole vine, that means it takes six or seven vines to make one bottle of sweet Botrytis wines.
In Canada where the vines are less productive again the yields from ice wine can be as low as half a glass from each wine. So Canadian Ice wine is often ludicrously expensive.
Inniskillen Riesling Eiswein sells for around euro95 a half bottle in OBriens Wines.
The Taste of Anti-Fashion
So, having found the rarest parcels of land, planted vines, waited for the mists, picked each berry by hand, not just each bunch and squeezed only a single glass of wine out of each vine, the next problem is to convince people that it was all worth while.
Well, apart from taste one chief interest of sweet and dessert wines these days is that they frequently have much lower alcohol levels than dry wine due to the fact that your aim as a winemaker was to have the fermentation fail to convert all the sugar into alcohol. So a sweet wine is usually low in alcohol, many German ice wines can be found at 8% or 9% Alcohol.
This is in happy contrast to many still dry wines which now regularly top a declared 14.5%, but which feel much hotter in alcohol terms.
Most importantly of all is the taste profile of sweet wines. These include nutty, baked fruit flavours, deep caramel and raisin-ated tones in a smooth, liquid velvet wash. These contrast with many of the purer wines that are now fashionable which emphasise primary fruit flavours like limes and lemons and grape skin over secondary and tertiary flavours like nut, vanilla or caramel.
If we were not blinded by a prejudice that said finding caramel and vanilla was just pandering to our childish interests in the simple things like ice-cream with a caramel swirl.
Of course if you look at what those who have enough money to free themselves from the tyranny of fashion or the opinions of others actually eat or drink you find something oddly unsurprising. Such people gravitate towards the happy simple sweet pleasures of childhood. Expensive Pomerol wines, bursting with toasty, creamy, jam like blackberry fruits with touches of soft milk chocolate and polished almost silky smooth tannins or caramel and toffee tinged Meursault or Pulgny Montrachet tend to be their first port of call, often to go with steak, chips, sticky toffee and chocolate puddings with piles of custard accompanied by a Sauterne that evokes the joys of a tin Golden Syrup.
The tyranny of tiny vegetables, over-priced, over praised John Dory and an ocean of acidic Sauvignon Blanc is reserved for the Dublin chattering classes.
Of course, the other attractive feature that sweet wines have, particularly from the New World is that being under-loved they sell at attractive prices.
Lastly unlike red wines, they actually enhance rather than contrast with cheese and of course they are the perfect match for so many Christmas time speciality foods such as Christmas pudding, rich trifle, Christmas fruit cake and of course mince pies.
If you can break free of the wine fashionistas then here are a few of the best and most rewarding sweet wines on sale this Christmas.
15 Fashion Free Favourites
5 Reasonably Priced Sauternes
Chateau de La Chartreuse, Sauternes 2006 (90) around euor20 – Mitchell and Son
Tesco Finest AC Sauternes 2005 (89) around euro16.99 – Tesco
Chateau Filhot, AC Sauternes 1999 (90) around euro24.99 – Oddbins
Chateau Suduiraut AC Sauternes 1998 (92) around 55 from – O’Brien’s Wines
Chateau Rieussec AC Sauternes 2004 (93) around euro 60 from – O’Brien’s Wines
5 Recession Busting Sweet Aussie Heroes
Brown Brothers, Orange Muscat and Flora, Australia 2004 (90) around euro 10.99
Peter Lehman, Botrytis Semillon, Barossa Valley 2007 (90) around euro 10.95
De Bortoli, Botrytis Semillon Vat 5, Riverina, Australia (91) around euro12.99
Wolf Blass, Gold Label Botrytis Semillon 2004 (92) around euro20
Tesco Finest, Botrytis Semillon Dessert Wine, Riverina 2005 (89) around euro 8.69
Widely available in better Off Licences and leading Independent Wine shops, please note that all above are half bottles.
5 Succulent Leftfield Delight
Chateau Jolys Cuve Jean AC Jurancon 2006 (90) around euro12.70 – Wines Direct
Mitchell’s Gold, AC Graves Superieres 2006 (89) around euro15.50 – Mitchell and Sons
Paul Cluver Noble Riesling, South Africa (89) around euro 15.99 – Independents
Schloss Schonborn Pfaffenberger Spatlese 2007 (90) around euro27.99 – O’Briens Wines
Chateau Court-les-Muts, AC Saussignac 2001 (91) around euro16.95 – Wicklow Wine Co.
Stockists – Wicklow Wine Company, Main Street, Wicklow Town, Wicklow; Wines Direct, 49 Lough Sheever Corporate Park, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and online at winesdirect.ie; Mitchell and Son, CHQ, IFSC, Dublin 1, Mitchell and Son, 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, County Dublin and Mitchell & Son, Marley Park Retail Centre, Grange Road, Rathfarnham, County Dublin and online at Mitchellandson.com; Independents such as 64 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, County Dublin and online at 64wine.com, Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6, The Vintry, 102 Rathgar Rd, Dublin 6; Le Caveau, Market Yard, Kilkenny; and most multiples including Tesco, O’Brien’s Wines nationwide and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and county.
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