IT IS not often that I drink a sweet wine, even though I do enjoy them. The problem is: when to drink them? For most people, the traditional time for sweet wines is with dessert. I would not like to suggest that Christmas is a time when indulgence rules, but I can generally fit in a glass of something sweet at the end of the meal.
The supermarket shelves are crammed with bottles of port and sherry hoping to fill this slot, but it is worth while looking for something different.
There are two main types of naturally sweet wines: those that come from grape varieties that are naturally rich in sugar, such as the Muscat, and those where the grapes are left longer on the vine, so that the water in them evaporates and the sugars are concentrated. In the finest sweet wines, such as those of Sauternes and Tokay, this process is accentuated when the skins of the grapes are attacked by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot”.
Outside Sauternes and Tokay, there are several places around the world where this rot occurs regularly, and naturally. For many years, the de Bortoli family, who had vineyards in Australia, had thrown away many of their Sémillon grapes which had been infected. Then, in 1982, a younger member of the family suggested that they might make a sweet wine. I can recommend three versions of this wine that are available this Christmas. Asda has the De Bortoli Family Botrytis Reserve Semillon 2013, at £6.98 the half-bottle; and Waitrose, the Noble One 2014, £19.99 the half.
The Muscat family is numerous. Sainsbury’s has a Moscatel de Valencia at £5.35 the bottle; Lidl a Muscat de St Jean de Minervois (£5.99, 50cl.); M&S an organic Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2017 from the Domaine du Paparotier (£8.99, half bottle); Majestic, a Vistamar Late Harvest Moscatel 2016, from the Limarí Valley, in Chile, (£6.99, half); and Waitrose a Greek Muscat de Samos Vin Doux 2017 (£10.49), and a wonderful Lustau Moscatel de Chipiona in the sherry region (£6.49 50cl.)
I have also come across two examples of the Italian Vin Santo. This is created by leaving bunches of mainly Trebbiano grapes to dry out on straw mats in the lofts of the growers over the winter after the harvest. The resultant wine is then left to age in small sealed oak barrels for several years. M&S has a Da Vinci Trebbiano Vin Santo Bianco dell’ Empolese 2009, at £14.07 for 50cls; Waitrose has a Santa Cristina Vin Santo Della Valdichiana 2012 (£16.49, 50cls.). It also sells a South African wine made in a similar way, Rustenberg Straw Wine 2017 (£13.49, half).
Finally, if you are looking for a sweet red wine that tastes of stewed prunes, figs, and raisins, the answer has to be Waitrose’s Kourtaki Cameo Mavrodaphne de Patras, at £6.95.
Whatever your taste may be in sweet wine, and whatever the price, now is the time to experiment.