Sweet and sticky

Once a year I review sweet wines. It is the favourite date in my tasting calendar. Sweet wines encompass such a fascinating range of styles that I guarantee there’ll be something for everyone in my list of top wines.

What other wine category could include Italian Muscato d’Asti with flavours of such ethereal delicacy you could imagine it being the toast of angels and a Villa Maria Noble Riesling (tastings) with scents so exotic and intense that it smells of the hair of the Marsh King’s daughter? One deserves to be icy-chilled and sipped as an aperitif while the other is best savoured at the end of a meal when the senses need something special to lift them from their slumber.

In between those two extremes is an array of wines capable of giving enormous pleasure. Glass for glass, sweet wines pack more punch than any wine style on the planet. My list of winners includes delicately scented wines made from Muscat grapes, Riesling with exquisite flavours concentrated by extra ripening and lush, honeyed wines that are the product of a beneficial vineyard mould called botrytis cinerea, but commonly referred to as “botrytis”. Botrytis performs a sort of vinous alchemy by amplifying intensities of flavour and sugar and by adding a heady flavour influence of its own.

The winning list of 24 wines includes an amazing eight different grape varieties. Riesling naturally dominates the line-up because botrytis magically transforms it into something special and because it has enough natural acidity to supply plenty of backbone to the lusciously sweet result. New Zealand wines dominate although there are wines from Australia, Germany, France and Italy. I tasted 44 wines to select this short list of 24 top examples.

Sweet wines are necessarily expensive. The average price of wines in my list is $31.65. That’s a lot of money when you consider that most are in 375ml half-bottles. But it’s cheap when you consider the cost of making a very concentrated dessert wine.

Botrytis mould can concentrate the grapes so much that they may yield as little as one-tenth (even less in some cases) of their original weight. The cost of wine increases by a similar proportion. If the wine made from non-botrytised grapes cost $3 a bottles it will cost as much as $30 a bottle after it has been greatly concentrated. There’s also a lot of risk involved in making botrytised wine. If the weather becomes wet and humid during the ripening period the spread of botrytis can get out of control and the crop of grapes may be lost. Making botrytised wine is not for the faint-hearted. Many producers of botrytised dessert wines claim they don’t make a profit. Why do they do it? Because weather conditions were favourable and making top wine gives them pleasure.

Slightly sweet

Perfect as an aperitif or with moderately sweet foods and spicy curries.

86 Forrest Estate 2005 Late Harvest Riesling, Marlborough (375ml) $19.00

Classy wine in a medium/sweet style with appealing mineral and citrus flavours. Now showing the benefit of bottle age although there’s plenty of life in it yet

86 Forrest Estate 2007 Late Harvest (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $20.00

A fresher, more youthful example of the wine above. Very pretty wine with mineral, lime and floral flavours.

86 Jaboulet 2006 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (375ml) [France] $26.00 (1)

Moderately sweet and slightly fortified white wine with some serious intensity, complexity and power. Rich, mouth-filling wine with floral, liquorice and annise flavours. Classic French sweet wine from the Rhone Valley.

85 Castello del Poggio 2006 Moscato D’Asti [Italy] $16.00 (2)

Fresh, heady, floral sparkling wine that makes a great aperitif and offers terrific value at this price (this is a 750ml bottle). It’s so delicate it’s almost ethereal. Moderately sweet to begin with but light and fresh on the finish with no suggestion of cloying.

85 Brown Brothers 2007 Moscato [Australia] $16.00 (3)

Australia’s answer to Moscato d’Asti. Slightly spritzig and delicately fruity wine – it’s a good, refreshing cleanly sweet wine at a very reasonable price (750ml).

85 Trentham Estate 2003 Noble Taminga (375ml) Semillon [Australia] $17.00 (4)

Taminga is a floral white grape variety originally bred in Victoria. Still fresh after five years with honey and perfume/pot pouirri characters. A pretty and distinctive wine offering value at this price.

85 Forrest Estate 2007 Late Harvest (375ml) Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $20.00

Only slightly sweet with typical varietal flavours of Turkish delight/rose petal and pot pourri. No evidence of botrytis. Nice fruit purity and impressive length.

Moderately Sweet

A good match for moderately sweet desserts. Fantastic with blue cheese at the end of a meal. Also makes a good match with milk chocolate.

96 Trinity Hill 2007 Gimblett Gravels Noble (375ml) Viognier, Hawke’s Bay $25.00

Outstanding dessert wine with luscious, ripe, pure fruit flavours interwoven with very pure, honeyed botrytis. The effect, when combined with the wine’s silken texture is totally seductive. Sweet but beautifully balanced by fine acidity.

96 Kerpen 2006 Whelener Sonnenuhr Auslese (three stars) (375ml) [Germany] Riesling $75.00 (5)

This intense, fine-boned German Auslese Riesling presses all the buttons for me. It is sweet without being luscious thanks to a knife-edged backbone of exquisite acidity. Beeswax, slate, spice and a hint of rose petal aromas. A classic example of a wine with subtle power.

94 Forrest Estate 2007 Botrytised (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $35.00

Big, powerful and deliciously luscious wine with plenty of honeyed botrytis influence but also showing great fruit purity and varietal character with lime and stone fruit flavours. Perfectly balanced. A real treat.

93 Gravitas 2005 Hugo’s Delight Late Harvest (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $24.90

Creamy wine with an intriguing array of exotic fruit flavours that are hard to define but delicious to savour. An attractive mix of ripe fruit and botrytis characters. Sweet but not sticky sweet – nicely balanced with a tangy thread of acidity.

93 Cloudy Bay 2004 Late Harvest (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $36.00

A very complex sticky with three elements; honeyed botrytis, citrus/stone fruit varietal flavours, and toasty bottle development. A fascinating wine with plenty of bottle development. Restrained lusciousness.

93 Forrest Estate 2005 John Forrest Collection Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $50.00

Very intense sweet wine with honey, vanilla, citrus and mineral flavours. It treads a fine and successful line between botrytis influence and varietal character – both are very evident.

90 Forrest Estate 2006 Botrytised (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $35.00

Concentrated wine with ripe apple, honey, mineral, acacia flower and stone fruit flavours. Very lush and concentrated. Now showing good bottle development.

88 Saint Clair 2007 Doctor’s Creek Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $26.95

Concentrated wine with attractive marmalade, honey and brandy snap flavours contrasting with citrus and stone fruit characters. A restrained sticky.

87 Seresin 2004 Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $42.00

Marmalade, chocolate, jaffa, honey and mineral combine in this moderately sweet and complex wine.

86 Framingham 2007 Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $29.95

Rich, oily, luscious wine with obvious botrytis character and strong acidity. The wine is a little sweet/sour at this stage but should integrate nicely in a year or two.

Super Sweet

Intensely sweet and luscious wines that are a meal in themselves but can be enjoyed with full-flavoured, very sweet and slightly caramelised desserts such as crème brulee.

95 Villa Maria 2004 Noble Botrytis Selection (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $39.99

Big, intense and toffee-ish dessert wine in a very sweet style. Hard to imagine a more luscious and intensely sweet wine. Ageing gracefully with years ahead of it yet. An iconic Kiwi sticky.

93 Villa Maria 2005 Reserve Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $49.95

Intense almost syrupy wine with masses of sweetness and flavour. Strong honeyed, creme brulee botrytis flavours almost totally subdue varietal characters.

93 Vinoptima 2007 Noble Late Harvest (375ml) Gewurztraminer, Gisborne $59.00

Dense, deep, musky wine with heady scents of dark honey, incense, anise and liquorice. It’s not easy to identify varietal character in a wine made from such ripe and concentrated grapes that have developed beyond the normal flavour spectrum of Gewurztraminer.

91 Mission 2005 Noble (375ml) Semillon, Hawke’s Bay $23.00

Rich, sweet wine in a distinctly Sauternes style. Still reasonably fresh but with a suggestion of bottle development adding extra interest to honey, lime and root ginger flavours. Impressive wine with a richness that’s seldom found in botrytised Riesling. Good value at this price.

90 Escarpment 2006 Hinemoa (375ml) Riesling, Martinborough $27.00

Intensely botrytised wine with a maderised influence adding cream brulee characters to honey, spice and vaguely floral characters. A big, sweet and voluptuous wine – would make a great climax to a posh dinner party.

88 Astrolabe 2007 Noble (375ml) Riesling, Marlborough $26.95

Deep, golden wine with masses of honey and musk flavours that almost mask the apricot and floral varietal characters. Very sweet wine with relatively low acidity.

85 Spy Valley 2007 Noble (375ml) Chardonnay, Marlborough $19.90

Very sweet wine with musk, honey, peach and rock melon flavours. Unusual – perhaps lacking the lovely piercing acidity, purity and length of Riesling but offers good value at this price.


  1. Glengarry Hancocks
  2. Sapori d’Italia (09) 415 9053
  3. Botica Butler Raudon 09-303 3867
  4. Sanz Global 021-683 377
  5. Macvine International (09) 579 7451

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Apr 2008.

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