Nectar of the Gods

Since the Romans and ancient Greeks started making and writing about wine the greatest wines have always been sweet. It’s easy to understand why. Pull the cork on a Vinoptima 2007 Noble Gewürztraminer and you’ll discover a sort of wine essence that continues to deliver wave upon wave of exotic flavours long after it is opened. I shared the leftover tasting wine with some friends and didn’t bother to replace the cork on the small amount left in the bottle. When I came into my tasting room the following day the air was heavy with the wine’s sultry scent.

You don’t drink sweet wines, or “stickies” as they are affectionately known, you savour them. Chilling them to fridge temperature helps to accentuate their freshness and reduce any risk of them becoming cloying.

I like to dress them up a little by serving them in old cut crystal glasses. The light refracts from the crystal edges throwing the golden colour of the wine into sharp relief. Wine geeks who believe that the world begins and ends with Riedel tasting glasses will be horrified to learn that I use, let alone own, such outdated glasses but they work for me.

A single 375ml bottle of a good sweet wine can satisfy ten people. If I serve half a dozen special wines at a dinner party you can bet that the dessert wine will command the most attention and praise.

My thanks to the many winemakers from several countries who sent me samples to help me find the best wines in three sweetness categories and my congratulations to the clever winemakers who made the winning wines. You might argue that these wines are the product of nature and yet it is man who takes the risks and makes the decisions capable of turning a bunch of furry, rotten grapes into wine that is truly nectar of the Gods.

Moderately sweet

These are the most versatile sweet wines. They can be served well chilled as an aperitif or matched with moderately sweet dishes – make sure that the wine is sweeter than the dish.

I have a good friend (let’s call him Henri) who is the best dinner party host I know. Eating at his place is the equivalent of dining at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Henri is a great cook (I beg him to have a go at Masterchef), has a brilliant wine cellar and thinks deeply about matching wine with food. He always offers guests a glass of moderately sweet wine before they sit down to dinner. When I asked him why he explained, “In France (did I mention he’s French) we eat to savour the flavours and textures of each dish and not to satisfy our hunger. One small glass of moderately sweet wine will take the edge off your appetite allowing you to focus more on the food and less on the need to eat to survive.” How civilised is that!

As you can see prices vary considerably but then so does the taste and texture of each wine. I’ve ranked the wines but acknowledge that they are all top notch examples of the moderately sweet style. Where the wine is packaged in a bottle smaller than the standard 750ml size I’ve indicated the volume.

Muddy Water 2009 Unplugged Riesling offers ridiculously good value.

#1 Muddy Water 2009 Unplugged Riesling, Waipara $25

Luscious botrytis-affected wine with strong honey, peach, mango, citrus/lime and hints of spice. An opulent Riesling that’s beautifully balanced to give a moderately sweet finish showing a core of fruity, mouth-tingling acidity. An absolute bargain at this price. – view on

#2 Dry River 2010 Late Harvest Amaranth Riesling, Martinborough $59

Stunningly pure wine with vibrant orange zest, apricot, lime, floral/rose and gently spicy flavours. There’s also a hint of honey although the wine shows little evidence of botrytis influence and is pure rather than opulent. Sweetness is restrained by fine acidity. Small production and high demand means that this wine is very scarce. – view on

#3 Neudorf 2009 Moutere Riesling, Nelson $29

Concentrated Riesling in a late harvest style although fine, fruity, mouth-watering acidity restrains sweetness to give a moderately drying finish. Layers of citrus, floral, mineral and hints of tree fruit flavours. Delicious wine with a great future – from my experience there is much to be gained from keeping for at least five years. – view on

#4 Telmo Rodriguez 2006 Molino Real Moscatel, Malaga (Spain) (500ml) $93

Very intense wine – quite sweet but perfectly balanced by acidity to give a moderately sweet finish. A little like French sauternes in structure and style. Not overtly fruity and showing obvious oak. Intriguing wine. – view on

#5 Lawson’s Dry Hills 2007 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, Marlborough (375ml) $23

Very pure Gewurztraminer characters of Turkish delight, anise and cloves. There’s also a subtle honeyed influence suggesting some botrytis influence. Moderately sweet wine that would make an ideal aperitif. – view on


As sweetness level raises concentration also receives a boost. All three wines are very intense. They are a mix of fairly concentrated varietal (the flavours of the grape variety) flavours and of honey and musk characters from botrytis infection.

It’s not surprising that all wines are bottled in 375ml bottles, half the size of the normal wine bottle. Cologne is typically in a larger bottle than its equivalent perfume for much the same reason. These wines are so intense they have at least twice the punch of lighter examples in the moderately sweet category.

When do you serve sweet wines? The obvious answer is matched with a dessert at the end of a meal. Try sipping a well chilled glass with your favourite blue cheese – the combination can be truly thrilling.

All three wines offer excellent value.

#1 Cloudy Bay 2005 Late Harvest Riesling, Marlborough (375ml) $29.90

Rich, fleshy, developed dessert Riesling showing remarkable freshness. Mineral, honey and stone fruit with hints of floral and toast. Attractive wine with good varietal flavours flattered with very pure botrytis. – view on

#2 Seresin 2008 Noble Riesling, Marlborough (375ml) $27

Intense and luscious wine with a lot of honeyed botrytis influence although the wine does show some underlying Riesling citrus character. Nice purity and impressive length. – view on

#3 Sileni 2009 Pourriture Noble (375ml) $31.50

There’s no mention of grape varieties which doesn’t matter because this wine is all about botrytis character rather than varietal character. Quite, but not excessively, sweet with honey, musk, spice and some exotic fruit flavours. – view on

Intensely sweet

Intensely sweet wines fall into the “spiritual experience” category. One tiny drop can offer an explosion of flavour.

Many years ago I was invited by the NZ Sugar Company to present a tasting of some of the world’s greatest sweet wines for their winemaker customers. We guessed the tasting would attract perhaps 20 people so I set about buying one bottle each of ten very expensive wines. I even had a $500-plus bottle of Chateau Yquem flown from France because it was not available in this country. We underestimated winemaker interest in the event. On the day of the tasting we had to hurriedly make room for 38 enthusiastic tasters. One bottle barely wet the bottom of each glass. We received no complaints. The wines were so powerful that everyone was able to fully appreciate their charms.

With the exception of Vinoptima 2007 Noble Gewürztraminer these wines offer remarkable value. They are incredibly expensive to make. The concentrated juice that goes into making these wines can be as much as one-tenth of the volume the grapes might have yielded if they had been harvested before the “noble rot” had shrivelled them to raisins. Therefore if it would have cost $2000 for a tonne of grapes before they had shrivelled the cost after shrivel would be $20,000. Add to that the cost of nurturing a typically small volume of wine and you will start to appreciate why $30-40 for a 375ml bottle is relatively cheap.

Vinoptima 2007 Noble Gewürztraminer is not cheap. But it’s also no ordinary wine. Owner Nick Nobilo has invested a large amount of money developing a vineyard and building a winery to make wine from a single grape variety – Gewürztraminer. He has constructed special rain covers over the vineyard to allow the grapes to continue to shrivel slowly despite bad weather. Rigorous grape selection and patient maturation has produced a wine of outstanding concentration and quality. It’s a very special wine indeed and the equal of great dessert wine from anywhere in the world.

#1 Vinoptima 2007 Noble Gewürztraminer, Gisborne (375ml) $250

This is one of the most intensely sweet and unctuous New Zealand wines I’ve ever tasted. It is also the most expensive. A thick, syrupy wine with the texture of thin treacle. Pungent musk, manuka honey, licorice/anise and many other exotic fruits and spices that are simply too hard to identify. Extraordinary wine – a totally over-the-top dessert wine. – view on

#2 De Bortoli 2007 Noble One Botrytis Semillon (Australia) (375ml) $39.90

Noble One is to Australian sweet wines what Grange is to Shiraz. This delicious wine lives up to its reputation. It shows plenty of botrytis but also some good sauternes-like Semillon character. Quite sweet but beautifully balanced with a lingering finish that never quits. – view on

#3 Brown Brothers 2006 Patricia Late Harvested Noble Riesling (Australia) (375ml) $34.95

Pristine wine with concentrated botrytis characters adding a honey and caramel complexity to pure Riesling flavours. Great acidity, a terrific texture and impressive length. Drinking beautifully now. – view on

#4 Spy Valley 2010 Envoy Noble Riesling, Marlborough (375ml) $29

Intense, luscious wine showing a strong honeyed botrytis influence. Rich and unctuous wine with a super-smooth texture. Layers of exotic fruits, spice and musk. Very impressive. – view on

#5 Millton 2010 Clos Samuel Special Bunch Selection Viognier, Gisborne (375ml) $37

Very sweet wine with honeysuckle, vanilla, honey and wild flower flavours. Nicely balanced with a smooth texture and lengthy finish. – view on

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – May 2011.

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