Sweet wines are under-appreciated and undervalued. They are expensive to make and can show intensely concentrated aromas and flavours that make you savour every last single drop. As they are generally unfashionable at the moment they are great value for money!
So, any trends in my choices? Of course! Call me predictable if you like:
- Alsace features highly – no surprise given that it’s one of my favourite wine regions in the world, and makes some fine sweet wines.
- The majority are Late harvest and / or Noble Rot styles (see below) rather than using wines made using air dried harvested grapes, Icewine, fortifieds or wines sweetened after fermentation (e.g. German Süssreserve).
Domaine Bruno Sorg Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007
Domaine Bruno Sorg in Eguisheim was one of the “must visit” places for our family trip to Alsace in 2013, one of the few we wanted to see again after visiting the year before. They produce the whole range of Alsace wines, from Crémant and basic (but great value) Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner, Grand Cru wines and Marc.
After tasting our way through most of the range, I’d decided on Pinot Blanc and a variety of Rieslings as the wines to buy for home. Almost as an afterthought we asked to try the Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN), a dessert wine made from grapes affected by noble rot (which sounds only slightly better than the scientific name of botrytis cinerea), a fungus which dries out grapes and concentrates the flavours under certain favourable conditions. The German equivalent is Trockenbeerenauslese, thankfully known as TBA for short.
And it was pure, heavenly nectar. When we had finished our tasting samples we almost broke the glasses open to get at the last few drops inside. Thankfully the tasting room manager gave us a drop more while he packed our order. He did mention that the SGN is only produced in years where quantities are abundant, in the first place, so that they have enough left over from the grape quotas required to make the regular dry wines. Additionally, there needs to be significant humidity (e.g. through fog) so that botrytis is encouraged, but so much that it turns to grey rot which is undesirable.
At €57 for a half bottle it worked out at twenty times the price of a regular Pinot Blanc…but it was stunning, probably the best sweet wine I have ever tasted.
Pegasus Bay “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008*
Peg Bay’s vineyards are in the Waipara district of Canterbury, just north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. As well as great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, they do several different Rieslings: Bel Canto is dry and produced every year, Aria is a late harvest made roughly two in every three years, and Encore is a botrytis style only produced in exceptional years when the conditions are right.
The 2008 Encore is full of exotic and citrus fruit on the nose, with tones of mushroom from the the botrytis. It is fabulously concentrated on the palate, sweetly succulent and honeyed but balanced by fresh acidity which stops it from being cloying.
Oremus Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2000
Long time readers might remember my Restaurant Review of Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, Dublin where I mentioned the production process for Tokaji. The bottle above which I saved until Christmas was getting deep in colour from bottle age, but the sugar levels from 5 Puttonyos and high acidity meant it was still in the spring of youth. It showed the classic apricot and mandarin flavours with hints of mushroom (weird, but not out of place) from the botrytis.
Oremus is owned by the Ribero del Duero house of Vega Sicilia – what a name to have behind you!
What’s in a name? Variations on the name Tokay have been used for several very different wines in different countries. Hold on to your hats, this can get very confusing…
- Alsace Pinot Gris – before 1994 it was referred to as Tokay d’Alsace, thereafter Tokay Pinot Gris, but that name has also been prescribed since the 2007 vintage. Even in drier versions, this is a rich, oily wine.
- Tocai Friulano, meaning Tocai from Friuli (near Venice in NE Italy) is a synonym of Sauvignon Vert, (sometimes called Sauvignonasse), a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc which is responsible for a lot of the substandard Chilean swill labelled as the latter. See also the Merlot / Carmenère labelling Snafu. What is it with the Chileans and grape names? Slovenia is just next door and has also had to relabel their Tocai, this time as Sauvignonasse.
- Rutherglen Topaque, a fortified wine made from Bordeaux’s minor Muscadelle grape, used to be known as Tokay. Confusingly, Muscadelle planted in California is sometimes known as Sauvignon Vert
- Hungarian Tokaji (Anglicised to Tokay) – the real deal!
Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2001*
Vendange Tardive (VT) is the Alsace version of the German Spätlese, both meaning late harvest. From a technical point of view VT is actually a closer equivalent to Auslese, the next rung up on the Germanic ladder. As grapes continue to ripen on the vine their sugar content increases, meaning higher potential alcohol and thus a potentially sweeter wine, depending on when the winemaker stops fermentation.
This particular VT is suffixed with an s on each word – the plural often indicates that several passes have been made through the vineyard to pick the grapes when they are perfectly ripe. Trimbach is one of the biggest names in Alsace, noted for their excellent dry Rieslings, but they also produce excellent VTs and SGNs when conditions allow. Gewurztraminer is an excellent grape for making Vendange Tardive as it is naturally high in sugar.
Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007*
Arthur Metz is predominantly a Crémant d’Alsace specialist, but sometimes other bottlings are seen on the shelves – this was picked up at random from a French supermarché. This SGN is made in the Grand Cru Steinklotz, the most northerly of Alsace’s Grand Cru vineyards, which gives it a lighter texture than some other Gewurztraminer SGNs.
Domaine Engel Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Noble 2010*
Labels have to be studied carefully in Alsace as there are many common family names among vintners, sometimes closely related and sometimes distant branches of the family tree. For example there are both Louis Sipp and Jean Sipp in Ribeauvillé plus Sipp Mack a few clicks away over the hill in Hunawihr.
Similarly, this is made by Domaine Fernand Engel et Fils of Rorschwihr rather than Domaine Engel Frères Christian & Hubert of Orschwiller – and it’s wonderful. Hopefully someday I will get to do a multiple Alsace family taste-off!
I hope you liked this post, please leave a comment and/or follow my blog if you haven't done so already.