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Tuesday 26 September 2017

The seductive appeal of sweet wines

Australia's wine industry was built on sweet fortified wines: among them ports, muscats and tokays.

Back in the 1940s and 50s, the days before anyone had even thought of planting chardonnay, or cool-climate pinot noir, “wine” usually meant port or sherry.

Fortified wines represented more than 75% of all wine sales - and most were extremely sweet. In those days beer was the average Australian's beverage of choice.

But times change and fortified wine styles have been swamped in popularity by the likes of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Barossa shiraz.

Wine fashion, however, is proving itself determinedly cyclical.

Sweet wines are rising in popularity with moscatos taking centre stage for summer quaffing and a groundswell movement to lift the profiles and popularity of Australia's world-class fortified wines.

Many wine drinkers are unfamiliar, or uncertain, when trying to match sweeter wines with suitable dishes, but the general rule is that your wine should always be sweeter than the dish you are eating.

Wine and food pairings are matters of personal preference, however; so feel free to be a rebel. Food and wine orthodoxy is dead, (well almost).

It used to be that sweeter wine styles, particularly those made from semillons and rieslings, were always paired with fruit desserts, tarts and cakes. Today, you can throw that rule book out the window and have some fun experimenting.

Pair a botrytis riesling or semillon, sweet wines with a good level of acidity, with pâtés, a terrine, or, for the truly decadent, foie gras.

Pour rich fortified wines over vanilla ice cream, or maybe enjoy a Jacob's Creek Prosecco Spritz with some smoked almonds as an aperitif.

That said, some classic pairings like sauternes-style wines and blue cheese, or a port-style drink with Stilton or Cheddar cheeses are timeless matches.

Sweetness in wine acts as a foil to rich foods, and as a counterbalance to spicy dishes, while sweet foods can make dry wines seem over-acidic and tart.

Sweet, high acid wines like De Bortoli's benchmark Noble One, made from semillon infected with botrytis cinerea, has the acidity that will cut through the fat in pâtés and the wine's sweetness will complement rich dishes.

Fortified wines comprise grape juice to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy, added. They are made in many different styles, including port, sherry, Madeira, marsala and vermouth. In regions like Rutherglen in north-east Victoria, and the Barossa Valley, Australian fortified styles still include tokay (topaque) and muscat. 

Sweet table wines, often very intense, are either made when botrytis, or noble rot, occurs in the vineyard when drier conditions follow wet weather. This is the case with Sauternes from France or Tokaji from Hungary.

Sweet wine has residual sugar in it, because during fermentation the yeasts did not consume all the sugar.

Other winemaking methods include when grapes are left to hang out on the vines after achieving full ripeness, while cheaper sweet wines can be made by simply adding sugar, a process known as chapitalisation.

While many people automatically pair red or fortified wines with cheeses, sweet whites are a delight, particularly with washed-rind and softer cheeses.

In the US, the big, sweet reds made from zinfandel grapes are a popular pairing with bitter, dark chocolate, while Australian sparkling reds are often paired with a traditional Christmas turkey. Different strokes for different folks.

There's a lot of fun to be had experimenting but there are three key factors to be considered when you decide which wine will go best with dessert.

For custard or vanilla-flavoured desserts opt for late-harvest whites or demi-sec (semi sweet) sparkling wines like moscato, Asti Spumate or Domaine Chandon's Cuvee Riche.

For fruit and spicy desserts try botrytised white wines, while for caramel and chocolate desserts, port and muscats generally work well.

When it comes to main courses, off-dry wines like late-harvest-style rieslings or gewurztraminers, can be matched with fiery Thai, Hunan or Szechuan dishes as a splash of sweetness can temper spice impact.

Many of the sweeter wine styles match brilliantly with the more pungent cheeses, especially blue cheese.

Moscato is a sweet, lightly sparkling wine that is usually enjoyed as an aperitif. Some adventurous friends of mine insist it is the perfect partner for eggs and bacon around brunch time.

That is a combination backed by leading Gold Coast sommelier and author David Stevens-Castro, who recommends pairing fluffy scrambled eggs with mango salsa in his book Paired.

Sugar, fat, and salt, consumed together, can produce the most ethereal gastronomic harmonies like sweet table wines with chicken liver mousse or pâté, or moscato with charcuterie.

Port and blue cheese and you have a wine match made in heaven, while muscats and topaques, often seen as wines for older folk, are ideal when enjoyed late at night in front of the winter fire, perhaps with a coffee, or even as a cocktail ingredient.

Try Blue Wren winery's white port mixed into a long drink with lime and soda: delightfully refreshing and a fun mix of old and new.


Farewell sherry, good evening apera. So long tokay, greetings to topaque.

Under a deal with the European Union that calls on Australian winemakers to stop using European names or regions, many wine styles now bear new names.

The names to disappear from Australian labels include Burgundy, White Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Manzanilla, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Sauternes, Sherry and Tokay.

All of them are names of towns or regions in Europe. Sherry, for instance, is an old English name for the Spanish city Jerez, while port comes from the Portuguese city of Porto.

Port-style wines made in Australia are now labelled simply as vintage, ruby and tawny fortified. Ruby is the least expensive and youngest while tawny is aged longer in barrel to take on a darker colour. Muscat, however, can still be called muscat, as it is the name of a grape variety.

For wines in these timeless styles try labels including Seppeltsfield, Campbells, Morris, Chambers, All Saints, McWilliam's, Penfolds, Seppelt and Yalumba. 

# This is the original version of a story that appeared in Nourish Magazine 

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