Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “Not much about wine makes me sad, but the average wine consumer’s attitude to sweet wines does. Good sweet wine is probably the most difficult and expensive wine in the world to make, yet so many people turn up their noses at the idea of sweetness in wine.” This is especially true for sweet red wines. While Sauternes is often praised by wine critics and collectors alike, sweet red wines aren’t given nearly as much attention. Aside from port, many of the top-rated sweet red wines in the world aren’t familiar even to collectors.
This may be about to change. More collectors are seeing the value in complex, sweet wines, especially those with aging potential. This guide will help you find the most incredible sweet red wines on the market today. From port to ice wine to vins doux naturels, these styles will make a lasting impression.
What Are the Top-Rated Sweet Red Wines?
There are hundreds of sweet red wine styles in the world. They range in flavor from off-dry to very sweet and from light-bodied to full-bodied. Some wine lovers prefer light-bodied styles that have a less forward sweetness while others love rich, ultra-sweet fortified wines–it’s all a matter of personal taste. Although taste is subjective, there are still a few notable styles of sweet red wine that everyone should try at least once. We’ve created a list of wine styles that meet most or all of the following criteria:
- Have received high ratings from professional wine critics (96+ points on average)
- Are collectible or valuable
- Are rare or unusual styles
- Have complex flavors
With these criteria in mind, here are the top-rated sweet red wine styles that every collector should try. Plenty of other delicious sweet red wine styles exist, but this is a good place to start if you want to build a collection of sweet red wines:
- Vins doux naturels
- Ice wine
Whether you find the wines on this list worthwhile or not depends on what you’re looking for. If you just want to enjoy a complex sweet wine after dinner and don’t care about secondary market value, then some varieties of vins doux naturels are great options. If, on the other hand, you want to invest in a wine that you can drink or resell on the secondary market for a profit, then good-quality port is a better choice, as it will reliably gain value over time.
To learn more about these top-rated sweet red wines, take a look at our detailed guide to each style below:
High-Quality Port Wine
Of all of the top-rated sweet red wines on this list, port is typically the most valuable. The best examples of this fortified wine can be drunk young or old, have exceptional aging potential, and may be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars on the secondary market. The main types of red port are:
For collectors, the most important ports are vintage, LBV, single quinta, and some types of colheita. Not only are these some of the top-rated sweet red wines in the world, but they also have secondary market value.
How It’s Made
The steps involved in port wine production vary depending on the type of port being made, though all port goes through the same basic process in the beginning. Port is made from a blend of different grapes, the most common varieties being Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, and Touriga Francesa, although hundreds of other grape varieties are also authorized for use. The grapes these varieties typically produce are small and dense with sugary, concentrated flavors. Winemakers add a grape spirit called aguardiente to the must to arrest fermentation by preventing the yeast from feeding off of the remaining residual sugar. This makes the wine taste sweet and also increases the alcohol content. From here, the wine is stored and aged based on its type and the goal of the winemaker.
If you plan on treating your wine as an investment, then buy vintage or late bottled vintage port from the most renowned producers.
The Best Producers
Some of the top port producers are:
- Quinta do Noval
- Smith Woodhouse
- Noon Winery
While there are many other excellent port producers, these are the producers currently making some of the top-rated sweet red wines in the world.
Should You Buy Port?
Port is a worthwhile investment whether you want to drink a delicious glass of sweet wine or you want to make a profit from reselling the bottles in your collection. If you plan on treating your wine as an investment, then buy vintage or late bottled vintage port from the most renowned producers in the region. Keep the wine for at least a decade, preferably more, to allow it to gain in value. If you aren’t planning on reselling your wine, then you may want to try young ruby, tawny, rosé, or crusted port as well. Even though they’re not worth much on the secondary market, these port wines pair well with desserts and are very approachable.
Notable Vins Doux Naturels
Vin doux naturel is a broad category of sweet wines made in the south of France. Some are white wines, but there are also a number of top-rated sweet red versions, including:
How It’s Made
“Vins doux naturels” is a French phrase meaning naturally sweet wines. However, calling these wines “naturally sweet” is a misnomer. While the Grenache grapes used to make these wines have some natural sugar, the wine’s sweetness actually comes from the use of grape spirit during fermentation (a process called mutage). Winemakers ferment the grape must for some time, allowing the yeast to feed on the sugar and convert it into alcohol. However, before the fermentation process is complete, winemakers add a strong grape spirit to kill the yeast. This stops the fermentation process, leaving behind a lot of residual sugar. The earlier the winemaker stops fermentation, the sweeter the vin doux naturel is. Because grape spirit is added to the wine, vins doux naturels tend to be relatively high in alcohol, though less so than port. Most wines have at least 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and some have as much as 20 percent ABV.
The finest vins doux naturels are sweet without being too alcoholic.
The Best Producers
Some of the best producers of vin doux naturel are:
- Domaine Cazes
- Domaine Gauby
- Domaine Laguerre
- Domaines du Mas Blanc
- Domaine du Mas Crémat
- Domaine Mas de Lavail
- Domaine Mas Amiel
- Domaine Matassa
- Domaine Olivier Pithon
- Domaine Pertuisane
- Domaine de la Rectorie
- Domaine Sarda-Malet
- Domaine des Schistes
Should You Buy Vins Doux Naturels?
The finest vins doux naturels often pair well with desserts, because they are sweet without being too alcoholic. The wine won’t overpower the food, making them great options for parties or other celebratory events. Rasteau is usually best served with dessert and isn’t worth storing long-term. Fine Rivesaltes is potentially age-worthy, but it likely won’t change too much in flavor over time. Banyuls and Maury Doux are the most valuable and age-worthy vins doux naturels. You could sell these on the secondary market for a profit. While they’re not quite as valuable as vintage port, the rarest bottles are still sought-after among collectors.
The Best Ice wine
Ice wine (or in German, Eiswein) is an unusual style of wine that is gaining popularity among serious collectors and enthusiasts. It can be made from just about any grape, as long as the grapes can withstand very cold temperatures and aren’t too thin-skinned or delicate. Some of the most common types of red ice wine are made from:
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
Red ice wine isn’t as popular as its white counterpart, which is made from Riesling, Chardonnay, or Vidal. However, many collectors buy these top-rated sweet red wines in part because they are so rare and unusual. Lately, wineries in cold regions of Canada and China have been experimenting with different red grapes in an attempt to make ice wine from them. One producer in Canada, Pillitteri Estates Winery, says that it has successfully made ice wine from Shiraz and Sangiovese grapes. We’ll likely continue seeing red ice wine made from unusual grape varieties in the future.
How It’s Made
Ice wine is more of a winemaking technique than an actual type of wine. To make ice wine, winemakers let the grapes fully ripen on the vine and then leave them there early into the winter season. They wait for the first deep freeze of the year when temperatures dip to 18 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. This causes the grapes to freeze on the vine. Once this happens, harvesters pick grapes from the vines and get them into the press while they’re still cold. Since the juice freezes at a lower temperature than plain water, the press will push the juice out of the grapes and leave the ice behind. Winemakers then ferment the juice slowly (a process that can take months). Producers use special strains of yeast that can withstand the high sugar content in the must. By the end of the process, winemakers are left with a wine that is both incredibly sweet and very high in acidity.
Ice wine is rare and expensive, but it’s not always collectible.
Ice wine is time-consuming and expensive to produce. If temperatures are too high, the grapes will rot on the vine or get eaten by animals. If temperatures are too low, the grape juice inside–as well as the water–will freeze and winemakers won’t be able to separate it from the ice. This is why ice wine is so rare.
The Best Producers
Two of the most notable red ice wine producers are:
- Pillitteri Estates Winery
- Inniskillin Winery
There are many other excellent ice wine producers, especially in Germany and Austria, where this style originated, but these two wineries, in particular, are known for experimenting with some of the most interesting red ice wine varieties.
Should You Buy Ice wine?
Ice wine is rare and expensive, but it’s not always collectible. Red ice wine is less sought-after than Riesling or Vidal, so if you’re looking to resell your wine for a profit on the secondary market, red ice wine may not be the best choice. However, these wines are fascinating to drink. If you’ve always wanted to know how a bottle of ultra-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir tastes, then investing in red ice wine is worthwhile. As for aging potential, very little red ice wine improves with age. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “A really good ice wine tastes like a cross between the purest form of grape juice and a slap in the face, so vibrant is the acidity. In my experience there is not much point in aging them. Youthful freshness, as in Sauvignon Blanc, is their strong point.”
More Top-Rated Sweet Red Wines
Port, vin doux naturels, and ice wine aren’t the only top-rated sweet red wines in the world. There are many other delicious sweet reds to choose from, including:
- Commandaria: Britt Karlsson of Forbes says, “There are few wines that I would call legendary. The sweet Commandaria from Cyprus is one.” These wines are aromatic and complex, and as they age, they develop rich nutty flavors and the aromatics become much more pronounced. Commandaria also has a unique milky appearance that becomes even cloudier with age.
- Dornfelder: A German wine with rich fruit flavors (such as cherry and blackberry) and spice. Many styles are dry, but some are exceptionally sweet.
- Lambrusco: A fizzy, fruit-forward Italian wine. They range from dry (secco) to rich and sweet (dolce).
- Brachetto d’Acqui: Made in Piedmont, Italy, these wines have prominent sweet red fruit flavors. They range from slightly fizzy (rosso styles) to full sparkling (spumante styles).
- Recioto della Valpolicella: A very sweet wine from Italy with intense chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, and cherry flavors. It can also be age-worthy and develops deep, complex flavors after 20 or 30 years.
- Black Muscat: A sweet, fortified red wine that tastes like candy. These wines are also quite aromatic, with prominent rose and violet notes. This is a rare wine, as very few producers make it anymore.
If you’re looking for wines to drink now, then Dornfelder, Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Acqui, and Black Muscat are excellent options.
All of these wines are interesting to drink, but few of them are truly collectible. Commandaria and Recioto della Valpolicella, for example, are delicious and age-worthy, but usually don’t increase in value on the secondary market. Keep these in storage for a few decades and open them for a special celebration. If you’re looking for wines to drink now, then Dornfelder, Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Acqui, and Black Muscat are excellent options. They all taste quite different, so you may have to experiment with wines from a few producers to find the styles you enjoy most.
How to Collect the Top-Rated Sweet Red Wines
The best sweet red wine for your collection depends on your personal preferences and what you wish to achieve.
- If you plan to resell your wine for a profit, buy vintage port or only the rarest bottles of ice wine.
- If you’re looking to try an ultra-sweet dessert wine, buy ruby or tawny port.
- If you want to drink a red wine that is slightly less sweet or that also has very high acidity, try vins doux naturels or any of the red ice wine varieties.
- If you want to lay down a bottle for a future celebration, high-quality port or vin doux naturel from Banyuls or Maury Doux will age beautifully.
While all of these wines are sweet, they’re also distinctive and complex, proving that not all of the top-rated sweet red wines taste the same. These unusual, flavorful wines will bring plenty of intrigue and nuance to your collection.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.