Stickies – wines with sex appeal

There’s something magical about great sweet wines. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, sugary, supermarket specials but the hand-made heavyweights in half-bottles that will set you back at least $30. That may seem like a lot of money for a syrupy 375mls but I suspect few winemakers make a profit on their stickies.

Why do they make them if they’re going to lose money?

  1. Because they can
  2. Because they love them as much as I do

Imagine you are a cheese maker. For 364 days a year you churn out good cheese. But on one day each year when the moon is full, the grass lush and your cows are extra happy you are able to make a cheese that’s better than all the rest. Would you mix it in with your regular cheese? Of course not. You’d keep it separate and share it with your best customers to show them what great cheese was all about.

It’s the same with winemakers. They can only make great sweet wine when vineyard conditions allow. When that happens they make the most of it even if they have to sell it at a loss. Great sweet wine is a rare and wonderful thing.

I’ve heard it said that wine contains pheromones. If that’s true then the most concentrated wines contain the most pheromones. Could that explain the deep sense of well-being, the broad smile and Zen-like sense of peacefulness that I get when I taste a great sticky?

The cynical among you will say it’s the alcohol and not the wine that’s inducing a sense of well-being. You’re wrong. Sweet wine has a relatively low alcohol – most of the stickies in my list are around 8% which is not much stronger than beer. The best and most concentrated sweet wines are packed in 375ml bottles, only slightly larger than most beer bottles.

I reckon its pheromones.

How sweet wine is made

Intensely sweet wine is mostly made by allowing the grapes to rot – slowly. If they rot quickly they will split and turn to vinegar.

How do you get grapes to rot slowly? If you’re a winemaker in Sauternes, the Mosel Valley or Tokay (regions famous for making top sweet wine) you simply wait for the mist to rise off a nearby lake or river creating the sort of moist conditions that, like bathroom ceilings, will stimulate the growth of mould. One mould, botrytis cinerea, can slowly desiccate the grapes until they become raisin-like with intense flavours and concentrated sugar levels.

In this country our vineyard areas aren’t particularly misty so the smart grape growers switch on the mould using overhead sprinklers.

Botrytis mould is capable of more than doubling normal sugar levels in grapes. It has a similar concentrating effect on flavours.

Making sense of sweet wine labels

Moderately sweet wines can be made by simply leaving the grapes to ripen for a longer period on the vines to increase sugar levels. Many, but not all, will have a honey-like botrytis influence although this is not particularly dominant. Check the alcohol level. If it’s over 11% the wine is unlikely to be extremely sweet. Riesling is the most popular grape variety although Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat and Chardonnay are all candidates. Words that are likely to indicate a moderate level of sweetness include:

  • Late harvest
  • Spaetlese (German for late harvest)

Very sweet wines must rely on the concentrating effects of botrytis to reach high levels of sugar and flavour. They tend to be more syrupy and have honey or caramel flavours that can dominate the normally distinctive flavours of the grape. In some cases they cease to be varietal wines because the varietal character of the grape tends to be swamped by the flavours of botrytis. Alcohol levels tend to be below 10% although there can be exceptions. Words that indicate a high level of sweetness are:

  • Noble
  • Botrytised
  • Bunch selection (only the most rot-affected bunches are picked)
  • Auslese (a German term for bunch selection)
  • Berry selection (only the most rotten berries are picked to yield very sweet juice)
  • Beerenauslese (a German term for berry selection)
  • Ice wine (only frozen berries are picked to produce very sweet juice, although in this country it can also mean that the grape juice is frozen in the tank to remove water and increase sugar content)

Moderately Sweet

Most of these wines can be enjoyed well chilled as an aperitif or with food that is slightly sweet, even though the sweetness may be masked by spiciness. They are, for example, a great match with Thai curries. Moderate sweetness is always supported by good acidity. These wines may seem quite sweet initially but within ten seconds the acidity starts to build so that they often finish fairly dry.

If you know someone who says they don’t like sweet wines give them a glass of Peregrine 2008 Charcoal Riesling (tastings) – it just might be a life-changing experience.

89 Peregrine 2008 Charcoal Creek Riesling, Central Otago 750ml $35.00

As pure and fresh as a Central Otago waterfall, great value

88 Kim Crawford 2007 Noble Reka Riesling, Marlborough 375ml $26.50

A medley of honey, citrus and stone fruit

87 Jaboulet 2006 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (France) 375ml $28.00 (1)

A top example of this classic French sweet wine

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

Floral and mineral flavours with a dash of honey

86 Saint Clair 2008 Big John Pioneer Block 9 Riesling, Marlborough 750ml $24.95

Succulent wine with a tangy finish. Top value (it’s 750ml)

85 Forrest Estate 2007 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, Marlborough 375ml $20.00

Subtly succulent with masses of Gewürztraminer flavour

85 Stone Paddock 2008 Isabella, Hawke’s Bay 375ml $23.00

Plenty of botrytis influence but only moderately sweet

84 Concha y Toro 2005 Reserve Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) 375ml $19.95 (2)

Tree fruits and honey – Chile struts its stuff

84 Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne 2005 Sauternes (France) 375ml $29.75 (3)

French Sauternes at a petit price

83 Waimea 2006 Late Harvest Riesling, Nelson 375ml $13.90

Great value and good drinking right now


These unashamedly sweet wines need to be matched with moderately sweet foods – make sure that the wine is sweeter than the dish as sweetness in food tends to reduce our impression of sweetness in the accompanying wine. Anticipate that drop in sweetness by choosing a wine that’s sweeter than the food.

Blue cheese is also a good match for sweet wine.

96 Framingham 2008 Auslese #2 Riesling, Marlborough 375ml $40.00

Powerful Riesling flattered by pure botrytis

95 Framingham 2008 Noble Riesling, Marlborough 375ml $30.95

Seductive flavours with an almost electric energy

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

Deliciously luscious with great purity and poise

94 Riseccoli 1999 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico (Italy) 375ml $44.95 (4)

Complex wine – a bit of traditional Tuscan magic

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

Intense and powerful wine that’s benefited from bottle age

91 Konrad 2008 Sigrun Noble Two Riesling Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 375ml $26.60

An unusual combination that really works! Good value.

90 Palliser 2008 Noble Riesling, Martinborough 375ml $24.00

Exquisitely balanced dessert Riesling

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

Top wine in peak drinking form

88 Trinity Hill 2008 Noble Viognier, Hawke’s Bay 375ml $35.00

Concentrated example of this fashionable variety

87 Canadoro 2008 Late Harvest Riesling, Martinborough 375ml $20.00

A nice mix of lime/citrus with honey and musk flavours


These are the heavy-hitters of the sweet wine brigade. Big, often syrupy wines that need to be matched with sweet foods. Desserts based on white chocolate are an inspired match.

They can of course be enjoyed without the complication of food. Next time you have a dinner party instead of serving a dessert dish bring out a well chilled bottle from my following list. You could make it even better by offering white truffles as an accompaniment.

Remember, these are highly concentrated wines. One 375ml bottle can satiate the senses of half a dozen dinner guests.

97 Framingham 2008 Auslese #3 Riesling, Marlborough 375ml $40.00

Sweet wines don’t get much better than this!

95 Framingham 2008 SGN Gewürztraminer, Marlborough 375ml $40.00

If you like Gewürztraminer you’ll love this concentrated wine

94 Vinoptima 2004 Gewürztraminer, Gisborne 375ml $59

Robert Parker jnr’s top Kiwi pick

94 Forrest 2008 The Doctors’ Chenin Blanc, Marlborough 375ml $25.00

Classy wine from a classic dessert wine grape variety

94 Brown Brothers 2006 Patricia Late Harvested Noble Riesling (Australia) 375ml $34.95 (5)

Super-smooth, super-concentrated Aussie sticky

93 Pegasus Bay 2007 Encore Noble Riesling, Waipara 375ml $36.95

Great example of a consistently top label

93 Framingham 2008 Auslese #1 Riesling, Marlborough 375ml $40.00

Masses of botrytis influence

93 Alluviale 2008 Anobli Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay 375ml $40.00

Unusually good botrytised Sauvignon Blanc

93 Framingham 2008 Botrytised Viognier, Marlborough 375ml $45.00

Long and luscious with real complexity

93 Klein Constantia 2002 Vin de Constance (South Africa) 500ml $74.95 (4)

Continuing a tradition that dates back over 400 years


  1. Hancocks Wine and Spirits Merchants, Ph (09) 361 8469
  2. Gold Medal Wines Ltd, Ph (06) 354 4000
  3. Wine Importer, Ph (09) 412 8542
  4. Planet Wine, Ph (09) 309 9708
  5. Botica Butler Roudon, Ph (09) 303 3610

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Apr 2009.

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