In my marketing career I have dealt with quite a few High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI). Whether this was Premier League footballers – during my time in sports tv; prospective superyacht owners – when trying to flog them extravagant and sleek multi-million pound vessels and media moguls, in the Middle East & Pacific Rim, (whilst based in Dubai, Hong Kong and Sydney) – pedalling desirable pay-TV subscription channels. Throughout this period of my life one abiding memory I have is of this diverse group’s interest in acquiring and drinking fine wines yet very rarely did this include fine and rare sweet wines
Why, I used to ponder, was this…? Sure, the footballers would, once in a while, consider choosing them – usually for their WAG’s (wives & girlfriends to you and me) but, as a general rule of thumb, their agents and advisors would usually steer them towards expensive Italian, Spanish, Australian or USA reds. The Russian oligarchs, on the Côte d’Azur, would typically gravitate towards exotic and eye-wateringly expensive Champagnes. The media moguls invariably nursed a passion for First Growth Bordeaux and top end Burgundy. Rare was the instance that the words Sauternes, Tokaji or Riesling passed their lips, let alone passed across their palates! Happily this state of affairs maybe about to change and it is unquestionably driven by a revolution in food and wine pairings
Today’s artisanal cheesemakers (especially in Europe) are creating exciting new products and the roving buyers of high end delicatessens are constantly looking to surprise their affluent and curious customers with new flavours and unusual tastes. But it is the interpretation of ingredients and flavour combinations by a new breed of chef that is influencing our tastes and challenging preconceptions about which wines traditionally accompany which dishes. Chefs like Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana in Modena; Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur in Menton; Andoni Luis Andruiz at Mugaritz in San Sebastian are continually pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine. I’m convinced history will identify them as the architects who transformed the fortunes of sweet wine as they question which wines best match their innovative culinary creations. They, and their inquisitive sommeliers, are finding unconventional wine selections (especially sweet wines) can complement the nuanced textures, flavours and contrasts in their menus much better than the traditional wine and food mores would have us believe. Leading the pack are botrytised wines
Noble Rot, aka botrytis – not to be confused with the groundbreaking wine magazine and wine bar! – is one of the most (but not the only) defining characteristic of top grade sweet wines. As Tim Atkin MW says: “Even to a seasoned wine professional, the sight of botrytis cinerea, a grey fungus that sounds like an STD, can be arresting. How does something that looks so revolting – think of a bunch of grapes that have been left in the fruit bowl for a month – produce sweet wines of such poise and complexity?” Well botrytis is a nifty fungus, which, when the climatic conditions are right, attacks the grapes and, as a result of this benign attack, the grapes shrivel until they almost become raisins and the net outcome of this transformation is the flavours and sugars are significantly more concentrated. The other classic method deployed in other regions like Italy and South Africa is to dry the grapes until they reach a raisin-like state which again concentrates all the sugars and intensifies the grape flavours
But, and here is the rub, the picking of grapes affected by botrytis is incredibly meticulous and laborious, and can only be done by hand. Each grape, when pressed, may only deliver a minute quantity of juice (an entire vine sometimes only produces enough liquid for one glass of wine!). The extremely rich and concentrated essence, when collected, is then put through a prolonged and slow fermentation process which finishes before all the fermentable sugars become alcohol – not the case in normal winemaking – hence the natural sweetness of these wines. This also goes some way to explain the lofty prices for wines produced in this fashion but who in their right mind wouldn’t want to try one of these vinous temptresses?
If sweet wine were a woman she would be Sophia Loren: alluring, exotic, voluptuous, sensual. Paradise in a bottle. The wines, not la bella Sophia! What you get in the glass is a magnificent range of flavours and scents that can encompass: apricot, honeycomb, spices, vanilla, peach, lychee, caramel, pineapple, barley-sugar, lilies, butterscotch, marmalade, wax, crème brûlée. Often underscored with a thrilling zing of acidity to stop it being simply a cloying mouthful of sugar syrup.
No wonder it is the perfect foil for any number of decadent foods from cheese to seafood, from fruit to pudding: Foie gras (Sauternes); Rocquefort (Barsac); Dover Sole (Vouvray Moëllux); Lobster (Straw Wine); Tarte Tatin (Tokaji); Biscotti (Vin Santo); Zabaglione (Ramandolo); Szechuan Beef (Jurançon); Thai Red Curry (Auslese); Chicken Vindaloo (Saussignac). Ok I made that last one up but I’m game to try it!
The great thing is these sweet wines work on so many culinary levels and deliver the umami hit and fascinating flavours that Michelin starred chefs are now demanding to accentuate their ground-breaking dishes. I encourage you, nay implore you, to visit either Berry Bros, Yapp, Huntsworth, Handford, Hedonism, Corney & Barrow, Lea & Sandeman, Bibendum et al and ask them what “stickies” they would recommend. Here are some I believe won’t disappoint:
Sauternes and Barsac, are widely recognised to be at the summit of luscious, sweet wines and Chateau d’Yquem is the Everest of these summits – hell Hedonism Wines (in Mayfair) has an entire wall fridge devoted to this liquid gold! But, unless you are a HNWI (and bravo if you are!), with several hundred pounds to drop on a single bottle, I would steer you towards:
de Fargues; Bastor-Lamontagne; Doisy-Daëne; de Myrat; Raymond-Lafon; Caillou; Climens; Lafaurie-Peyraguey
*Cérons produces wines of the highest quality in one of the least-known, but oldest appellations of Bordeaux and Ch de Cérons (AOC) is definitely worth investigating
Jurançon and Vouvray produce Moëlleux (sweet) wines that age extremely well and deserve space in your cellar. Domaine Larreyda and Huet, respectively, are top labels.
Monbazillac – A delectable sweet wine the French have largely kept to themselves: Château Grande Maison is certainly worth keeping an eye out for
Seek out any of the Prädikats – whatever your bank balance can tolerate! – with these classifications (from the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinessen and Nahe regions): Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese (a mouthful in all senses of the word) and, the ultimate and rare, Eiswein. The best names to stick with are Schloss Johannisberg; Dönnhoff; Müller-Catoir; JJ Prüm; Josef Leitz; Weingut Robert Weil. But other producers are worth researching and you could always fall back on Dr Ernst Loosen who turns out exemplary single-vineyard Rieslings
Probably the least well known of the classic European wine districts, the finest sweet wines from the tiny region of Tokaji, (close to the Russian/Ukraine border), last for centuries and have a very distinctive bottle shape with a dumpy base and very slender neck. Queen Victoria received a gift every year on her birthday from Emperor Franz Josef, one bottle of Tokaji Aszü for every month she had lived. No wonder she reached the venerable age of 81 with the prospect of 81 cases of Tokaji to look forward to! The best wines are those demarcated Aszü and always look for anything that is 5 Puttonyos and above (a guide to the sweetness of the wine). Royal Tokaji have an impressive range of award-winning wines from their Grand Cru vineyards.
Vin Santo Chianti Classico: Occhio del Pernice, Badia a Coltibuono is a superlative example of this enticing nectar from Toscana
Friuli in N Eastern Italy produces Ramandolo DOC and Vignetti Micossi create a prime expression of a wine that delighted the PapalPalace and illustrates what this region is genuinely capable of
Molino Real Mountain Wine, Malaga from Andalucia in Southern Spain is a remarkable unfortified sweet wine from very old vines that should absolutely be on your check list of unctuous beauties to try
Julio Bastos’ Dona Maria Late Harvest is a rare and distinctive beast from Portugal – a botrytised Alentejo Semillon and a must try as a superlative alternative to tawny port
Australia & New Zealand
Cookoothama Botrytis Semillon, Nugan Estate, Riverina is a botrytised wine in the style of a Sauternes or Barsac, but with a Southern Hemisphere twist.
Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest Weisser Riesling, on the other hand, is a botrytised wine that could easily give German Ausleses a run for their money.
Klein Constantia is world renowned for its Vin de Constance – a late-harvest style made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, without botrytis. Famous fans of the wine include Napoleon who drank it on the island of St Helena to find solace in his lonely exile. What better product endorsement do you need?!
De Trafford and Donkiebaai both produce a “straw wine”. Sometimes also called Vin de Paille or Hooiwÿn. Effectively grapes placed on a drying rack, covered with straw and manually turned twice a week to avoid them getting sunburn (truly!). Each are a thing of splendour and overlooked at your peril.