With sugar as Public Enemy No. 1, sweet white wines are becoming less and less popular in the world. Even less popular in China where white wines are not considered as “healthy” as red wines. Still, white wine consumption is on the rise in China. This is fortunate since they usually pair better with local cuisine than reds. Furthermore many people are new to grape wines, and white wines (especially sweet white wines) are a very good way to start, being the easiest to drink.
There are a few ways of making quality sweet white wine, all using various processes to reduce the water content of the grape, increasing the concentration of sugar and flavours. The result is a much smaller quantity produced, which is reflected in the price.
The most common method of production is by postponing the harvest time, so the grapes will start shrivelling or “raisining” on the vine. Hence the term on the label “Late Harvest”, “Vendanges Tardives” or “Selection de Grains Nobles” (selection of noble berries). The harvest can be stretched up to an additional three or four months, depending on weather conditions and how much concentration the winemaker wishes to achieve.
During that period the grapes might be affected by Botrytis Cinerea, also called “Noble Rot”. This is a fungus that makes the berries rot on the vine, accelerating the evaporation of water and bringing more complexity, with distinctive aromas of honeysuckle and apricot. This “botrytisation” is mandatory in the regions of Sauternes and Alsace, as well as in Germany for wines labelled as “Bereenauslese” (selected berries harvest) and “Trockenbeerenauslese” (selected dried-berries harvest).
Germany is also famous for making the most reputable and expensive ice wine (Eiswein), as important a producer as Canada. The production of ice wine involves picking the frozen grapes while they are still on the vine, meaning harvest can be as late as January. Then they will be pressed and the crystals of frozen water removed, keeping only the concentrated juice. This is a risky and labour intensive procedure, and consequently the most expensive to make and buy.
Some of the best grapes to make sweet white wines are Sémillon, Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Their natural high acidity balances the sweetness and thin skins make them easily affected by botrytis.
In warmer areas, an old practice which is still mostly used in the French Alps, Northern Italy and Greece, is to dry the grapes after harvest. Traditionally the grapes were placed on a straw mat (vin de paille or passito), or nowadays more commonly hung in a room and left to dry, sometimes for up to three months.
To illustrate this article and since I thought I should try it at least once in my life, I decided to break my piggy bank (still got only a half bottle though) and went for the most prestigious and famous sweet white wine of all.
To have a “Yquem” feels like more than just consuming wine as it is also history in a bottle. Making wine since the beginning of the XVIII century, the estate was then acquired by the Lur-Saluces family in 1785, until the year of this vintage, 1996. Only “Château” being elected “Premier Cru Supérieur” in the famous 1855 Bordeaux classification, it has sustained its reputation since then. An exceptional terroir combined with a very tight selection – if you own a 1972, 1974, 1992 or 2012 bottle go straight to fill out a police report as these vintages were never produced for not being up to standard. Yquem has a very low yield, one glass is the equivalent of about one vine. Furthermore the extended ageing time, three and a half years in new oak barrels, make this exceptional wine able to last 100 years or more.
After more than 20 years since harvest, and a half-bottle which ages faster, this wine developed a nice melted-gold-colour with a Thai-summer-sunset-orange-like reflection. Mostly Sémillon with up to 20 percent of Sauvignon Blanc to increase acidity, the nose is of dried apricot, date, honey and dried longan at first; opening up to honeysuckle, fern, walnut shell, pot-pourri, Japanese pear, crème brûlée, orange peel, tea leaf and vanilla. Full-bodied with a solid 14 percent of alcohol, yet the general impression is of freshness and elegance with a palate of salted caramel, candied mandarin, lime sorbet, peach juice and wolf-berry, developing to white pepper, sweet ginger, coconut bark and heather. Long and fresh finish, calling immediately for another sip. David Rouault
Wine available at Banny Wines Cellar: 28788000
David Rouault is a professional classical musician, part time wine consultant and full time wine lover, holding WSET Level 3,
Certified Specialist of Wine and Introductory Sommelier diplomas. www.dionysos.com.mo