Sweet wine isn’t just for dessert. Contrary to what some wine enthusiasts believe, sweet white wines can be served with savory dishes or appreciated on their own. In fact, some of these wines are just as complex and elegant as drier styles like white Bordeaux, white Burgundy, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Underneath all of that residual sugar, the top rated sweet white wines are packed with layers of flavor; they’re rarely just “sweet.”
If you’re looking for an excellent sweet wine that you can enjoy at any time of the day—and perhaps resell on the secondary market for a return on profit—consider buying Sauternes, Tokaji Aszú, or late-harvest Riesling or Gewürztraminer from a reputable producer. These sweet white wines are particularly high in quality, have significant aging potential, and are sought-after by many of the most selective and experienced wine collectors.
What Makes a High-Quality Sweet White Wine?
What sets top rated sweet white wines apart from lower quality dessert wines is that the best sweet wines have greater complexity of flavor. An easy-drinking dessert wine may taste overly simplistic, particularly if the wine is made using chaptalization—the process of adding beet or cane sugar to the grape must before it goes through fermentation. While not all wines that undergo this process are low in quality (many fine producers in Burgundy and Bordeaux use this technique), the risk of excessive chaptalization is that the wine will taste too strongly of sugar and alcohol. These flavors crowd out other more nuanced flavors like citrus and minerality, resulting in wines that lack depth and character.
So, how is a fine sweet white wine made? Instead of undergoing chaptalization, many of these wines are made using gentler or more natural means like:
- Botrytis: This fungus is native to areas like Sauternes and infects grapes that are still on the vine in a process called noble rot. The botrytis fungus absorbs nearly all of the water from the grapes, leaving behind flavor-packed solid compounds like tartaric and malic acids, trace minerals, and natural sugar. As a result, wines made from these infected grapes are much more concentrated and naturally sweet than those made from uninfected grapes.
- Late-harvesting: Another way to naturally increase residual sugar in wine is to leave the grapes on the vine for exceptionally long periods of time, sometimes weeks or even months past the average harvest date for that particular variety. For example, German producers can make Riesling as dry or as sweet as they like by harvesting grapes at different periods of time. The later the grapes are picked, the sweeter and riper the fruit is. If the grapes are left on the vine after they are fully ripe, the water in the fruit begins to evaporate and the berries start to raisin, making the flavors even more concentrated.
- Fortification: Producers can also retain residual sugar levels by stopping the fermentation process before it’s finished. To do this, they add a grape spirit with a high alcohol content by volume (ABV) to kill off the yeast that converts residual sugar into alcohol. This process, called fortification, can happen either before or after the wine has gone through one full cycle of fermentation. The earlier the spirit is added, the sweeter the resulting wine will be. This is how fortified sweet white wines like white port are made.
Winemakers can also use more than one of these techniques to craft complex, ultra-sweet white wines. For example, to make Tokaji Aszú, producers encourage botrytis growth and also leave the fruit on the vine late into the harvest season to cultivate the most concentrated grapes possible.
What Are the Top Rated Sweet White Wines?
To help you start your own sweet white wine collection or expand on an existing collection, we’ve put together a list of some of the finest styles of these wines on the market today. A few sweet white wines that are consistently high in quality are:
- Late-harvest Gewürztraminer or Riesling
- Certain styles of Moscato and ice wine
- White port
If you’re starting a sweet white wine collection from scratch, you may also want to know how sweet these wines are. Some of the varieties and blends in the list above are only semi-sweet, while others fall squarely into the category of dessert wines. The wines you choose for your own collection will depend on your taste and tolerance for sweetness. Below, we’ve created a chart showing where each of these wines falls on the sweetness scale:
If you have a sweet tooth and already enjoy dessert wines, then ice wine made from white varieties is a great option. You’ll also enjoy Sauternes and Tokaji Essencia or Aszú wines. If you usually avoid wines with significant residual sugar, there are still a number of wines in the list above that could win you over. Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers, even those who typically dislike dessert wines. These wines aren’t overpoweringly sweet and the sugar is balanced by racy acidity and complex flavors, including nuttiness and dried fruit. When in doubt, select wines from cool vintages or drink the wine while it’s relatively young and still has plenty of refreshing acidity. To acquire a taste for sweet wines, you can also start with slightly drier styles of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Moscato and work your way up to some of the sweeter wines in this guide.
The Most Age-Worthy and Valuable Sauternes
Sauternes is arguably the most esteemed and sought-after sweet white wine in the world. Not only do these wines have great aging potential (up to 100 years or more in fine vintages) but they also are among the most valuable on the secondary market. For example, one of Château d’Yquem’s best vintages, an ancient bottle from 1811, sold at auction in 2016 for $117,000. At the time, it was the world’s most expensive bottle of white wine.
What makes these wines so special? The Sauternes appellation is very humid, particularly in the fall. This encourages botrytis growth, causing the grapes to shrivel on the vine and develop intense flavors. Sauternes wines are made from a blend of:
- Sémillon: This gives the wine a slightly savory character.
- Sauvignon Blanc: This adds bright citrus fruit flavors and acidity to the wine.
- Muscadelle: This aromatic variety gives the wine a distinctive floral scent.
The mix of savory spice, refreshing acidity, heady perfume, and rich sweetness makes Sauternes a captivating wine to drink. As these wines age, they darken in color and develop a deep nuttiness which gives them even more character.
To find the top rated wines from this appellation, seek out reputable producers and high-quality vintages such as the following:
- Château Doisy-Védrines
- Château de Fargues
- Château Guiraud
- Château Rieussec
- Château Suduiraut
- Château d’Yquem
|Vintage||Wines to Try|
|2017||2017 Château Guiraud|
|2016||2016 Château d’Yquem|
|2015||2015 Château d’Yquem|
|2014||2014 Château d’Yquem|
|2013||2013 Château Suduiraut|
|2011||2011 Château d’Yquem|
|2010||2010 Château d’Yquem|
|2009||2009 Château Doisy-Védrines|
|2007||2007 Château d’Yquem|
|2005||2005 Château d’Yquem|
|2003||2003 Château d’Yquem|
|2001||2001 Château Rieussec|
|1997||1997 Château de Fargues|
|1996||1996 Château d’Yquem|
|1990||1990 Château d’Yquem|
|1989||1989 Château d’Yquem|
|1988||1988 Château Rieussec|
|1986||1986 Château d’Yquem|
Whether you’re looking for a wine to lay down for decades or you want to see for yourself just how complex and elegant sweet white wines can be, you should consider starting a Sauternes collection. Or, if you already have a few of these bottles in storage and you want to expand your collection of top rated sweet white wines, invest in a few bottles of Tokaji as well.
The Best Tokaji for Collectors
The Tokaj region of Hungary is often compared to Sauternes because both regions produce wines that are very long-lived and have rich, complex flavors. However, there are a few differences between these wines.
To start, Tokaji is made from a different blend of grapes, including:
- Furmint: This adds high acidity and prominent fruit flavors like apple to the wine.
- Hárslevelű: This grape adds perfume to the wine.
- Sárga Muskotály: This grape is also heavily perfumed and adds additional aromatics to the wine.
In general, Tokaji is more aromatic than Sauternes. These wines are also slightly rarer because they’re so labor-intensive to make. The process involves:
- Carefully selecting the right blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes by hand.
- Mashing the dried, botrytized grapes into a paste.
- Mixing the paste (measured in puttonyos) with the must from the non-botrytized fruit.
Winemakers have to carefully balance the refreshing, acidic flavors of the non-botrytized grapes with the ultra-sweet flavors of the raisined, botrytized fruit. When winemakers achieve this balance, these wines taste well-balanced in their youth and become even more flavorful over time. Sweeter styles of this wine like Essencia and Aszú may even age for 200 years.
If you’re looking for the best Tokaji wine, consider the following producers and vintages:
|Vintage||Wines to Try|
|2008||2008 Royal Tokaji Essencia|
|2007||2007 Royal Tokaji Essencia|
|2000||2000 Hétszőlő Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos|
|1993||1993 Royal Tokaji Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos (Red Border)|
Tokaji is diverse in flavor and sweetness, so you may wish to experiment with many different styles from the Tokaj region to find the wine that best suits your palate. If you’re looking for wines that are slightly less sweet than either Tokaji or Sauternes, you should also explore other types of top rated sweet white wines, like late-harvest blends from Germany and Austria.
The Finest Late-Harvest Sweet White Wines
Wines that are typically dry can be made to taste sweeter when the fruit is left on the vine late into the harvest season. You’ll find late-harvest wines like these all over the world, but two countries that are best known for making these wines are Germany and Austria. German and Austrian grapes may also be botrytized, but many of them are not. They often attain sweetness purely from being left on the vine until as late as November, sometimes longer.
Riesling and Gewürztraminer are two of the most notable examples of sweet white wines from Germany and Austria. They range from bone dry to dessert-like, depending on how producers grow the grapes. Late-harvest styles of these wine varieties are classified based on their sweetness level:
- Spätlese is primarily sweet on the palate but the sugar is balanced out by plenty of acidity.
- Auslese is left on the vine even later and tastes much sweeter as a result.
- Beerenauslese is remarkably sweet and undergoes some botrytization to achieve this.
- Trockenbeerenauslese is the sweetest and is made from botrytized grapes that have almost completely dried on the vine.
High-quality sweet white wines from Germany and Austria can fall under any four of these categories. For example, 1996 Dr. Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Riesling and 1985 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling are examples of high-quality Spätlese from Mosel and Pfalz. If you’re looking for a slightly sweeter style, try Auslese from well-known producers, such as 1995 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Riesling and 2005 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Goldkapsel AP 8 Auslese Riesling.
More Sweet White Wines to Add to Your Collection
Sauternes, Tokaji, and late-harvest Riesling and Gewürztraminer are only some of the top rated sweet white wines in the world. Some styles of sweet white wine are enjoyable to drink but typically not as collectible or valuable, such as:
- Ice wine: This is made from thick-skinned grapes that are left on the vine through winter and freeze solid under these cold conditions. Any thick-skinned grape can be used, but Riesling, Vidal Blanc, and Chardonnay are the most common. These wines can be valuable, but it depends on the producer’s reputation and the wine’s rarity.
- Moscato: This is a sweet, peachy wine made from Muscat grapes. It can be sparkling or still. It also varies in sweetness by region and the producer’s winemaking style. For example, Italian Moscato d’Asti (some of which can be quite valuable) is fairly sweet, but Rutherglen Muscat from Australia is far sweeter.
- Port: White port isn’t as popular or valuable as ruby port; however, it’s still an excellent easy-drinking wine that pairs well with food.
No matter which wine styles you select for your collection, you should try to think outside of the box when it comes time to drink your wine. Pairing these wines with dessert is perfectly acceptable, but many of these wines are so complex in flavor that they actually pair best with savory dishes. For example, you could experiment with savory pairings such as:
- Tokaji Aszú and foie gras. Both are very rich. The saltiness of the dish also cuts through the sweetness of the Tokaji.
- Sauternes and Roquefort cheese. The sharpness of the cheese complements the rich, nutty flavors in the wine and excites the palate.
- Late-harvest Riesling and Thai food. Many traditional Thai dishes combine sweet and spicy flavors, which pair perfectly with sweeter styles of Riesling.
Like sweet red wines, top rated sweet white wines offer so much more than meets the eye. These aren’t the one-note dessert table wines or digestifs you’ve been served at pâtisseries and restaurants. These wines are rare, age-worthy, tremendously complex, and even quite valuable on the secondary market. If you don’t yet have any sweet white wines in your collection, try giving these impressive wines a chance.
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.