Are sweet wines making a comeback?
Prescribed as the remedy for a broken heart by Jane Austen, and imbibed daily by Napoleon, sweet wine has a long, cherished history, with countless recognisable figures reaching for it as a cure for all ills. But in recent years popularity for this treasured drink has waned, so often only counting your great-great-aunt amongst its current fans.
In fear of being lost to history, many winemakers around the globe have been experimenting with some exciting projects in a bid to make dessert wine cool again. From full-scale rebrands, to unusual food pairings, we explore the myriad ways that new and old estates are breathing some much-needed oomph into our favourite sugary booze. Who knows, maybe we can tempt you to reach for a bottle of something sweet when choosing your next tipple?
Ah Yquem! The crème-de-la-crème of dessert wine. A wine so prestigious it’s been the victim of some pretty huge robberies, has featured throughout popular culture (I was taken by the moment that the protagonist in Marlowe Granado’s Happy Hour stumbles across a cellar full of Yquem when travelling through Spain), and was once the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold – its 1811 vintage reached £78,105 at auction in 2011.
Bordeaux’s answer to liquid gold, it slowly began to be acquired by luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1996, who increased their shareholding in 1999. Entering the millennium with Moët Hennessy in tow, this globally celebrated wine has never looked back. Fast forward to 2022, and Yquem launched its Lighthouse Programme, in a bid to reinvent how the famous dessert wine was being consumed in restaurants across the world.
The intention of this initiative was to break the limits of what we understand a “dessert” wine to be and to show it off as a beverage to be consumed at both the beginning and middle of a dinner. Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel famously paired the 1991 vintage with roast duck, whilst other chefs and sommeliers have toyed with roast chicken, seafood and spicy dishes. Following the release of the 2020 vintage earlier this year, Yquem’s Lighthouse Programme has been embraced by 45 top restaurants worldwide, who are experimenting with new and exciting ways to serve this wine, including the promotion of drinking it young, in comparison with the patient cellaring that is often expected when acquiring a bottle of this resplendent nectar.
Domaines Baron Philippe de Rothschild: Rieussec
The jewel in DBR’s crown, this celebrated Sauternes estate has been drunk amongst courts of the world’s Tsar’s and noblemen, flaunting a long history that dates back to the 18th century, when it was first produced by the monks of Carmes de Langon. Purchased by the Rothschild family in 1984, the estate initially propelled the careers of Lafite’s current and former technical directors, Eric Kohler and Charles Chevallier.
Fast forward to 2021, and under the guidance of Jean de Roquefeuil and Saskia de Rothschild, Rieussec went through a huge brand overhaul. To begin, the new estate owners thought it time to shift to eco-agriculture, switching the estate to organic farming. Secondly the globally recognised wine went through a major rebrand, enlisting the graphic eye of Muji’s design company Big Game. For the past couple of vintages Rieussec has been packaged in an opaque, stubby bottle, complete with a spherical bottle-stop to allow the wine to keep for up to a month upon opening. It also has since adopted a new logo, that depicts a bold, bright yellow crown.
With a lot of younger wineries across the globe using illustrators and graphic designers to help market their wine, perhaps this is Rieussec’s attempt at attracting a new guard. Choosing to not drop their name however, is a purposeful tactic which reminds us that this is still the same outstanding sweet wine that has been long associated with excellence.
Klein Constantia: Vin de Constance
Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte quaffed a bottle of South Africa’s Vin de Constance daily when exiled to the island of St Helena. In the 19th century this luxurious drink was a favourite amongst the literati, and was famously imbibed by Dickens, Baudelaire and Austen.
Today this stunning drink is spearheaded by chief winemaker Matt Day (who holds the keys to Stellenbosch giants Anwilka). However, the young winemaker is disinterested in waxing lyrical about the dessert wine’s famous patrons, and instead is driven by what the future holds for this celebrated booze.
Following on from a revamp of Klein Constantia’s winery in 2015, Day set out on the pursuit of freshness, creating wines that have since been praised for their restraint, balance and beauty. In opposition to its Bordelaise counterparts, VDC doesn’t depend on botrytis to build additional sweetness, but instead relies on late harvests, elongated skin contact and maceration to coax out all of that glorious sugar.
By introducing 4,500 litre foudres into the winery, Day set out on a mission to experiment with new methods of maturation. For instance, the 2019 vintage spent part of its maturation period in 60% new oak and the remaining 18 months in Day’s newly acquired foudres. In turn, Vin de Constance has been praised for creating a well-balanced sweet wine that avoids being overly sickly. We can’t wait to get our hands on their recently released 2020 vintage.
With a history that even surpasses that of Bordeaux’s greatest, the wines of Tokaj have been noted as the first to incorporate the effects of botrytis to create wines of saccharine complexity. A man with an incredible sweet tooth, Tokaji also lies amongst one of Bonaparte’s favourite elixirs, and was frequently gifted to Queen Victoria by Hungary’s Emperor Franz Joseph during her reign. All-in-all, it appears that the nineteenth century royals and noblemen seemed to love a bit of sugar.
However, like a majority of estates across Europe, Tokaj was a region that was also hit by phylloxera, and following the onslaught of two world wars and the nationalisation of its vineyards, largely became forgotten throughout the 20th century. It’s only been in the last two centuries that winemakers have sought to put Tokaj back on the map, creating globally recognised wines that harness the beauty of Furmint and Muskotály, whilst continuing to craft Aszú-style sweet wines too.
The youngest wine on this list, the Royal Tokaji Company was founded in 1990 and is often hailed as a renaissance of the celebrated sweet Tokaji- Aszú. In 2020 the winery made global news upon the limited release of its 2008 Essencia. Available in 1.5 litre magnums designed by James Carcass, only 20 were made, complete with an eye-watering $40,000 price tag to boot. However, we might just stick to a bottle of the Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2017 for now. Unless we win the lottery. There’s also that.