The world’s greatest sweet wines

This tasting was organised by Jean-François and Catherine Ménard of E.L.M.H during Vinexpo, though attendance was by invitation only. Their stated aim was to present “an interactive tasting in absence of competition, rankings or medals. Therefore in an open-minded way we can search for the real souls of these wines”. Luckily I managed to secure a place as this was an opportunity I was really relishing – to taste such a collection of fine sweet wines, in a variety of styles, from every corner of the globe. Basically the techniques or processes used to create these wines fall into three categories:

  • late-harvest wines, where the sweetness comes from grapes that are super-ripe, sometimes shrivelled into raisins, from being left on the vine well past physiological ripeness (including icewines)
  • botrytised wines, where the noble rot has struck the grapes, concentrating their sugars through dehydration
  • more interventionist processes, such as adding spirit to arrest fermentation or air-drying grapes on mats until they raisin.

In terms of drinking style, this tasting proved what an incredible diversity exists within the category of quality sweet wines. The personalities of these wines range from luscious, rich, oily sweetness to a knife-edge balance with natural acidity. Some have a dark, caramel and treacle sweetness, others a flowery, light, sherbet sweetness. This really was a wonderful tasting event in that it allowed direct comparisons to be made between so many fine examples of almost every style. As a lover of all well-made sweet wines I would say that those I enjoyed most were probably the German and Loire examples, where beautiful – sometimes ethereal – sweetness was balanced by mouth-watering acidity. An honourable mention for the Italian Recioto de Soave within this category, which was of a very high quality. Of course, a caveat must be put on that: the overwhelming effect of so many luscious sweet wines had me craving anything savoury after a couple of hours, which maybe wasn’t fair on those really opulent, lower-acid wines which in other contexts may have won the day.
The tasting was not blind.

Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Weingut Robert Weil (Germany, Rheingau) Keidrich Gräfenberg Riesling Auslese 1997
Gorgeously refreshing, zingy aromatics of lime, lemon and grapefruit. Fine balance with honeyed lime fruit, some opulence, excellent length and razor sharp acidity. Excellent.

Weingut Gunderloch (Germany, Rheinessen) Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling Auslese 1997
Lovely, distinctive grapefruit and orange aromas with flowery, herbal notes. Superbly balanced on the palate with honey, apricot and nectarine, and luscious, mouth-filling texture. Fine acidity, long and superb.

Schlossgut Diel (Germany, Nahe) Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Auslese 1998
Another gorgeous nose of honeyed botrytis fruit and citrussy, lemon and grapefruit notes. Sweeter on the palate than the Gunderloch, very smooth and silky, but balanced, long and very good indeed.

Weingut Prinz von Hessen (Germany, Rheingau) Winkeler Hasensprung Riesling Eiswein 1992
Very intense, honeyed, fig and muscaovado sugar nose. Palate is sweet and concentrated. Really intense honey and sweet marmalade flavours, oily and luscious. Very good.

Feiler-Artinger (Austria) Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Blanc/Welschriesling 1995
Lovely golden yellow colour and a beautifully nutty botrytis nose. Rich peachy fruit on the palate, medium body, but great length and staying balanced and poised. Very good indeed.

Domaine Alois Kracher (Austria) Chardonnay Trockenbeerenauslese 1996
Darker orange/gold. Restrained nose, with fine butter, honey and orange aromas emerging. Really very fine on the palate. Lots of peach and orange fruit, rounded and long. Finish is nuanced, persistent and full of interest. Excellent.

Bon Père Germanier (Switzerland) “Mitis” Amigne 1996
Light, ozone-like nose, bitter orange-zest, minerals, herbs and sherbert. Beautifully light and sweet palate with marzipan and vanilla flavours. Good balance, though rather high alcohol. Decent length and reasonably complex.

Pierre-Alain Meylan (Switzerland) “Cryo” Riesling/Sylvaner 1997
This wine is made by a process known as Cryoextraction. This technique in some ways replicates the natural process that produces Icewines: the freshly picked grapes are frozen in large refrigerators which has an effect of concentrating the juice and ensuring that only the sweetest grapes release their juice when pressed. Though controversial, even the famous Château d’Yquem has employed this technique in poorer vintages.
Powerful vanillin new-oak nose over honeyed, floral fruit. Super-sweet, but stays quite light and fresh on the palate thanks to adequate acidity. There is a classy feel about the balance and the finish. Quite impressive.


Château La Tour Blanche (Sauternes) Premier Cru 1990
Quite a dark, nutty, figgy nose. Notes of caramel and orange. On the palate more of those sumptuous flavours of caramel, brown sugar and mandarin orange and some interesting spicy notes. Good acidity, very long and sweet on the finish. Very good.

Château Tirecul la Gravière (Monbazillac) “Cuvée Madame” 1995
Lightly botrytised notes of lemon, wax and fig. Very rich apricot fruit on the palate, but vaguely medicinal and just a touch cloying.

Domaine Bott-Geyl (Alsace) Tokay-Pinot Gris Grand Cru Sonnenglanz Vendange Tardive 1994
Fresh, light, sherbetty. Very subtle. Lovely touch of botrytis. On the palate again light, flowery and honeyed with apricot fruit that is sweetly-edged. Quite long. Very good.

Domaine Cady (Loire) Coteaux de Layon cuvée “Les Varennes” 1997
Lovely zippy notes on the nose. Botrytis aromas, but lifted by a sharp citrus note and slightly leafy, nettly aromas. Fine balance on the palate with a ravishing acidity over lime, honey and summer flowers. Just gorgeous.

Domaine des Baumard (Loire) Quarts de Chaume 1992
Unctuously figgy botrytis nose. Beautifully nuanced with caramel and butterscotch, nuts, pineapple. Very racy and balanced on the palate. Spice and sweetness, tangy tangerine and zesty citrus fruits, vibrant acidity and terrific length. Extremely good.

Domaine Delétang (Loire) Montlouis 1996
High, super-ripe orange and subtle mineral notes. Racy, tangy and balanced, this is medium-sweet, round and peachy with fresh acidity in the moderate finish.

Domaine Cauhapé (Jurançon) Quintessence du Petit Manseng 1996
Very ripe, intense orange and marzipan aromas with summery, flowery nuances. Powerful palate of melon and figs with a cherry edge. Intense and long. Very good.

Clos Cancaillau (Jurançon) Cancaillau Gourmandise 1995
Lightly honeyed melon, pear and fig on nose and palate. A pretty wine at this stage, if not very complex or profound.

Domaine Cazes (Rhône) Muscat de Rivesaltes 1998
High, ozone, mineral and lime aromatics – very fresh and appetizing. Plenty of sweetness but also high alcohol that is a little fierce in this company. Quite refined fruit and good length though.

Other “Old World”

Amadeo & Giovanni Tessari (Italy) Recioto di Soave “La Perlara” 1997
Really light, refreshing, crisp fruit on the nose of tangerine, limes and a sherbetty brightness. Luscious and full with sweet, peachy fruit, citrus and really tangy acidity. Very long with elegant almond nuances and fine balance. Excellent.

Donnafugata (Italy) Passito di Pantelleria “Ben Rye” 1998
Dark colour. Over-ripe orange nose. Quite high, musky, slightly estery notes. Palate has high alcohol and super-sweet fruit, but I found this rather crude.

Domaine Parparoussis (Greece) Rio Patras Muscat 1996
Musky, grapy aromas but a mineral quality too. An element of rather raw alcohol on the palate, honeyed bitter-orange fruit and spice. Good length, a little crude.

Diznoko (Hungary) Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 1993
Very elegant but lush nose of figs, caramel, and caramelised oranges. Lusciously sweet and honeyed with intense orange fruit, but lighter, flowery nuances and fine balance. Long. Excellent.

Vino Brezice (Slovenia) Jagdni Izbor Chardonnay 1997
I found rather unpleasant rancid butter notes on the nose. There are some orangy aromas too, and more on palate, but rather cloying. Not great.

“New World”

Klein Constantia (South Africa) Noble Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1996
Attractive and quite distinctive nose with nutty, almond aromas, spices and honey. Palate has similar flavours and there is good balancing acidity. Lovely.

Nederburg (South Africa) Noble Late Harvest 1997
First bottle had a slightly musty, rotten note. Corked. Second had a darkly hued nose of marmalade, figs and treacle. Very full and rich. Intensely honeyed botrytis fruit on the palate, just lacking a little in acidity to keep it really sharp.

Far Niente (USA) “Dolce” 1995
I had previously really enjoyed the ’94 of this. Lovely dark, toasty, caramel nose. Fudge and sweet Turkish delight on the palate, plenty of opulent botrytis fruit and enough acidity. Didn’t stand out in this arena as I thought it might, but still very good indeed.

Château Mercian (Japan) Koshu Torribirn 1996
Rotting oranges, lime and some flowery notes on the nose. Good balance and mouth-feel, very grapefruity and tangy with citrus fruit and acidity. Very good! “