This article by me originally appeared in India Today Spice in the October 2011 issue.
The grapes hang on the vines till well past harvest time in September, going from ripe to over-ripe. Mist from the nearby river envelopes the vineyard every morning, blanketing the grapes in humidity. Seemingly forgotten by the winemaker, the grapes in the cold, damp conditions attract Botrytis – a kind of rot. Are these grapes fated to be churned into compost, or are they destined for some of the most glorious wine in the world? That the answer is the latter is one of the wine world’s sweet surprises.
The fungus that attacked the grapes is also known as ‘Noble Rot’ and it naturally performs an essential function in making sweet wine by concentrating the sugars in the grapes. Noble rot sucks the water out of the grapes, leaving shriveled bunches with a very high concentration of sugar. Sweet wine is difficult to make, as nature must play the major role. Adding of sugar to make quality sweet wines in prohibited in most countries and only the lowest quality wine is artificially sweetened.
Nature, hand-crafting and patience are just few of the ingredients that go into making sweet wines. What plays on the palate though is more than sweetness. Quality sweet wines have balancing acidity which gives each sip a crispness and zing and prevents the sweetness from becoming cloying. Noble rot adds its own dimension to the wine – giving it enticing aromas of burnt orange peel, and marmalade. ‘Tokaji’ from Hungary and ‘Sauternes’ from Bordeaux are the best known examples, though Germany and Austria also produce fine noble rot wines called ‘Beerenauslese’ or ‘Trockenbeerenauslese’. Through various points in history, noble rot wines have been the height of fashion. Though feted by experts and connoisseurs for their complexity, these wines are currently underappreciated. This makes them some of the wine world’s greatest bargains.
Noble Rot is not the only way that nature plays its role. In some cold corners of the world grapes are left on the vine to freeze. When temperatures fall low enough for long enough, the stone-like, frozen grapes are harvested and crushed, separating the ice from the other solid matter, once again concentrating the sugars, and producing nectar called ‘Icewine’ (Eiswein in Germany and Austria).
Sweet wines are ideal candidates for the cellar – their combination of sugar, alcohol and acidity giving them exceptional longevity. These wines do not merely survive in the bottle, they evolve with age, taking on layers of complexity. The best of Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú have been known to evolve gracefully in the bottle for centuries.
Not all sweet wines have to be ignored till dessert. Some mildly sweet wines are excellent as aperitifs – teasing the palate with the interplay of sweetness and acidity, and preparing it for the meal. Lusciously sweet wines are the perfect accompaniment to a thoughtfully prepared dessert. The greatest sweet wines though do not need any dessert at all. They are a complete and satisfying finale by themselves.