Author: dr. Gabriella Mészáros

Naturally sweet wines

Naturally sweet wines

Sweet wines are not made the same way everywhere in the world. Sweet wines are typically divided into two categories based on whether their flavour, style and character are shaped only by the sugar content of the grapes or by any other mixture or syrup containing sugar that is added to the wine.

This latter group is called fortified wine and is enriched with additional alcohol. Such wines are usually connected to very warm, dry regions and include types of wine such as port, madeira, marsala, sherry and many others.

Very different types of wine are made in cooler regions, where the grapes ripen and accumulate the necessary sugar content much later. These are naturally sweet wines. Sweet wines in this category are wines with a good structure and a high sugar concentration, created entirely by nature without any outside “help”. In the case of wines created without any artificial addition of alcohol, first place, of course, goes to wines from Tokaj.

Dried grapes are also often used in warmer regions to make non-fortified wines. The clusters are separated from the vine and are either laid out or hung up to dry before they are processed further. This takes place when the berries are sufficiently shrivelled, indicating they now have a high concentration of sugar. In fact, higher sugar content can also be achieved by drying the grapes on the vine (késői szüret/late harvest/Spätlese/vendage tardive), which is the easiest way to create sweet wine. Ice wine, on the other hand, is made in places where the winter is sufficiently long and with little rain, because in this case, the producers wish to leave the berries on the vine so that they freeze. Naturally, the goal here is also to achieve a high concentration of sugar, rather than the freezing itself. The average temperature has to be around -7°C for at least 6-7 days to allow the water inside the berries to freeze. The grapes are pressed outside and then the water is separated from the sugary must in the form of ice crystals, resulting in a very sweet and exceptionally fruity juice with modest acidity. The finest ice wines are generally made when botrytis is not present.

Most of the world’s naturally sweet wines are made from botrytised grapes.

One category of these that is unique and the most expensive in the world to make is “Aszú”. The acidity, alcohol and residual sugar constituting the wine’s body are in perfect harmony and in proportions unseen elsewhere. In ideal cases, Tokaji Aszú is not simply a dessert wine. The unique characteristics of the best Aszú wines make them exceptionally high-quality, meaning they may be consumed at practically any point of a meal.

The best naturally sweet wines are almost always produced from botrytised berries, i.e. grapes that have been infected with noble rot or botrytis cinerea. This is a fungus which starts to develop as a result of moisture, settling on the grape clusters during misty mornings and spreading through the berries during warm autumn days. This dehydrates the berries, thus increasing the concentration of acidity, sugar and the fungal colonies themselves. Botrytised wines may only be produced successfully in regions where the air humidity is higher than average and warm autumn weather is occasionally interrupted by short showers. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the regions where the world’s most renowned botrytised wines are made are all located near rivers, large lakes or even the sea. However, it is very risky; if the weather turns to rain in October, noble rot will become grey mould, which in extreme cases, may render the entire harvest unusable.

Fine sweet wines are not only made in Tokaj, they are also produced in the Mátra, Mór and Badacsony wine districts and historically were also produced in the vineyards of Eger, Ménes (Arad-Hegyalja) and Rust.

Internationally, the finest naturally sweet wines are produced in France next to the Loire, around Sauternes in the Bordeaux wine region and in Alsace, in Germany near the Rhine and the Mosel, and near Lake Neusiedl in Austria. These wines all have the aromas and flavours of the noble rot, botrytis cinerea, just like the wines from Tokaj. However, they are produced anaerobically, using reductive methods, making them very different in character from Hungary’s sweet Tokaj wines, whose wonderful structure and minerality are unmatched by wines from any other region.

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