Confessing a taste for sweet wines is a difficult thing, for many wine lovers. The term conjures up images of cloying, candy-sweet “jug” wines, marketed to the least sophisticated of drinkers. In truth, sweet wines are just as varied and rewarding as dry wines. While low-quality industrial sweet wines are every bit as poor as their reputation suggests, the best include some of the world’s most cherished and costly vintages.
Wine is created by yeasts, which consume the natural sugars in the grape juice and turn it into alcohol. As the wine ferments, and its alcohol level rises, the yeasts begin to die away. They can’t use up all of the sugar in the grape juice before they die, and it’s the remainder — referred to as residual sugar — that determines how sweet the finished wine will be. Wines made from the juice of the ripest, sweetest grapes, with the most concentrated sugars, naturally make the sweetest wines.