Sticky and dessert wines

CHOICE’s expert tasters found some heavenly dessert wines that don’t cost the earth.
 
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  • Updated:18 Aug 2008
 

01 .Introduction

glass of wine with grapes

In brief

  • The expert tasters picked six dessert wines to make up the CHOICE Selection, costing from $9 to $43, to suit a range of pockets.
  • Late harvest, botrytis-affected, ice wine — they’re all dessert styles, but different, and all included in our taste test.
  • One wine was in the gold medal class, and all the other wines in our CHOICE Selection would have won silver.

Their luscious sticky texture and appealing golden glow give dessert wines a quality of sumptuous indulgence. Yet ‘stickies’, as they’re affectionately known, make up less than 5% of the wine we enjoy in Australia. They deserve greater popularity. The right one can add that special touch to a dinner party, and leave you with money left over for the perfect dessert to accompany it.

The CHOICE expert panel tasted 38 dessert wines that you should find in bottle shops. They knew the type of dessert wine they were tasting, but otherwise they were identified only by numbers. The experts are trained to ignore personal preferences and look only for attributes that indicate a wine is well made and has no obvious faults. Out of 20 points:

  • A score of 14–15 points indicates the wine is OK but nothing special.
  • A wine that scores 15–16.9 points is awarded a bronze medal at wine shows.
  • 17–18.4 points earns a silver.
  • 18.5 points or more a gold medal.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2008 but is still a useful guide today.

 
 

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The following wines scored the best results in our test.

What to buy
Brand Price
Ice wines
Seifried Nelson Riesling Ice Wine 2007 $35.50
Botrytis-affected
Lillypilly Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2002 $21
Miranda Golden Botrytis 2002 $18.50
Tempus Two Botrytis Semillon 2005 $20
Vinifera Easter Semillon 2005 $23
Late harvest
Miranda The Pioneers Raisined Muscat 2006 $9

Dessert wines selection 

Results Table

Full results for all wines are shown in the table below.Results table part 1

 

 

 

Results table part 2

Table notes

  • Score Each expert gave the wines a score out of 20 according to the international show-scoring system for wines: 3 for appearance, 7 for nose (aroma) and 10 for palate.
    The score printed in the table is a consensus score reached when discussing the wines after the tasting, still without knowing what the wines were. When the wine received too wide a range of scores and no consensus could be reached, we called it a Mixed emotion, listed the range of scores and included two overall sets of comments to reflect the tasters’ different views. If it sounds like something you might like, give it a try.
  • Alcohol The alcohol content of dessert wines varies more than normal wines, from very low (such as 7.5%) to very high (16%). The figures in the table are the percentage alcohol by volume as stated on the label.
  • Price This is based on prices we paid in bottle shops in Sydney in July 2008. We found significant price variations, so it pays to shop around and look out for specials.
  • Tasting notes These are compiled from the experts’ notes on the wine’s colour and appearance, nose, palate and overall impression. Combined with the scores they should give you a good indication of the wine’s style, aroma and flavour.

How we tested

The CHOICE expert panel (see below) tasted 38 dessert wines that you should find in bottle shops with a good range of stock. The wines were tasted in groups — ice wines, followed by late harvest and finally botrytis-affected.

The experts knew the type of dessert wine they were tasting, but otherwise they were identified only by numbers.

The experts are trained to ignore personal preferences and look only for attributes that indicate a wine is well made and has no obvious faults.

  • A score of 14–15 points (out of 20) indicates the wine is OK but nothing special.
  • A wine that scores 15–16.9 points is awarded a bronze medal at wine shows.
  • 17–18.4 points earns a silver and 18.5 points or more a gold medal.

03.Sticky wine types

 

Dessert wines are traditionally made from grapes harvested late in the season. This allows extra sugar to accumulate in the juice but results in a much lower yield — one reason why stickies can be expensive. Wine is usually fermented until it’s ‘dry’ — meaning that almost all the sugar in the juice (winemakers call it ‘must’ at this stage) has been converted into alcohol by yeast fermentation.

Fermentation stops when the alcohol level reaches about 14% — the yeast stops growing because it’s effectively pickled. Because of the extra sugar in the juice used for dessert wines, there’s enough sugar left after fermentation to give them their characteristic body and sweetness.

Often the high sugar concentration causes fermentation to stop at lower alcohol levels. Even a medium-sweet table wine has a sugar content of no more than about 3%, whereas a dessert wine is typically 10%–20% sugar.

Stickies are very different from fortified wines, such as port or muscat. Fortified wines are made by adding spirit to part-fermented wine to pickle the yeast while there’s still unfermented sugar. Their alcohol content is typically 15%–20%. Australian dessert wines fall into two groups:

  • Late harvest The grapes are harvested when the berries have dried and shrivelled on the vines in late autumn. There’s little juice but the sugar can be 35% of the weight of the grape.
  • Botrytis-affected styles The botrytis also contributes flavour notes of its own, which give these wines their special appeal. But the degree of botrytis infection can vary, so there isn’t always a clear distinction between late harvest and botrytis-affected styles.

Cold comfort

Three of the wines in our test were imported ‘ice wines’ (Eiswein in German). This style of wine is a speciality of regions that get really cold late in the season, such as Germany, Austria and Canada. The grapes are picked and pressed while frozen, sometimes at night. The ice crystals in the part-frozen juice contain very little sugar and remain with the skins, pips and other solids, leaving a concentrated juice that contains as much as 30% sugar.

This method also concentrates the acid in the juice. It’s the much higher acidity of ice wines (compared with late harvest) that gives them their characteristic refreshing sweetness. Two of the ice wines in our test were produced in New Zealand by simulating this process using refrigeration.

Serving stickies

Experts recommend serving dessert wines slightly chilled rather than straight from the fridge. And because you don’t drink as much of them as other wines they should be served in a smaller glass, such as a sherry glass. It’s also preferable that the glass is tulip-shaped to capture the fruity aromas and acidity that balance the wine’s sweetness.

Steer clear of heavy desserts (especially chocolate); dessert wines are best with fresh fruit or lighter desserts such as a lemon tart, caramelised pears or crème brûlée. And there’s nothing wrong with serving a dessert wine as an aperitif with blue or soft cheeses or a pâté.

The average punter agrees

 We’ve only printed the experts’ scores but we also had some dessert wine lovers taste some of the wines to see whether they shared their views. On the whole, the ‘lay’ panel liked the experts’ top-scoring wines and disliked those that the experts rated poorly.

The lay panel also gave top scores to some of the wines that divided the experts — Kracher Eiswein Cuvée 2005, Virtu Noble Semillon 2000, De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2006 and Trentham Estate Noble Taminga 2003.

Meet the experts