The bad sweet wine you've had in the past is just bad wine—the sweetness has nothing to do with itby Barry Smith / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
A lot of people don’t like sweet wine—but not all sweet wines are alike. Many of the most versatile grape varieties turn up in sweet or dry versions: the waxy, honeyed wines of Loire-grown Chenin Blanc; the dry, off-dry and sweet German Rieslings from the Mosel. Hungary’s famous Furmint grape used in Tokaj can also produce refreshingly different flavours like that of Oremus’s Mandolas; while Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon can be blended together to produce silvery, opulent white Bordeaux or Sauternes. One of the world’s greatest wines, Château d’Yquem, is produced in this way.
But arresting the alcoholic fermentation in order to leave copious quantities of residual sugar—as much as 35 grams per litre in some cases—will only produce a satisfyingly complex wine if there are sufficient quantities of balancing acidity. For it is the sweet-sour balance of these wines that lifts them out of the ordinary.
It is sweet, insipid wines that people are probably thinking about when they dismiss the whole category out of hand. And yet these are simply bad wines. As ever, it pays to look closer. Sauternes, for example, can be extraordinary but they tend to be heavier, more viscous than the lighter wines made across the river in Barsac. Château Climens is made there and it is glorious. It has a gentle, cool sweetness and a bitter orange marmalade finish.
Others will be more inclined towards the exuberance of a Château Rieussec from the stable of Château Lafite. It’s a matter of temperament. My friend, the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who among other things is the author of the bestselling book Other Minds about the mental life of the octopus, can not take the over-ripe, shouty flavours of Rieussec. He prefers Climens, and I’m with him on this. But when it comes to Château D’Yquem, it feels like all the greatest elements of sweet wines have been put together to produce something even greater than the parts.
What about matching sweet wines with food? Nothing goes better with sponge and custard than a Vouvray from Domaine Huet. Quady’s Elysium Black Muscat is one of the best matches you will find for a chocolate mousse with raspberries, although people will always direct you to a Banyuls wine from Roussillon in Southern France.
Sweet wine is not only meant to match with dessert. An Alsace Gewürztraminer goes with saucisson and cornichons. I would also recommend a glass of Sauterne with a Roquefort and pear salad. The intense sweetness of the wine meeting the saltiness of the cheese is perfect.
But my favourite story about matching foods and sweet wines came from a “world’s best” sommelier and it bears re-telling. As a young German in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Switzerland, he came across a wealthy wine novice who ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem with his steak chasseur. Rather than tell the client that one doesn’t drink Yquem with meat but a robust red from the Rhône, the sommelier consulted the chef, after which he returned to the table and said, “Since you are having the d’Yquem the chef has decided to prepare a foie gras sauce with the steak.” It was a gesture of tender care and what the wine required: quelle finesse.