How is Sweet Wine Made? The Sweet Wine Making Process

The task: Drink a delicious sweet wine. The question: What is a sweet wine? The challenge: Find a delicious sweet wine that works for you.

Here’s all the info you need. Cheers.

What Is a Sweet Wine?

Two white wine glasses clinking together. Circle of friends around them.

Image: Zan / Unsplash

Wine typically falls into two camps: Sweet and dry. There’s a common misconception that fruit-forward wines classify as “sweet.” Not true. Really, it’s all about the remaining sugar level.

Sweet wines are wines that have residual sugar in them. You can find them all over the world, instead of just the bottom shelf at Trader Joe’s. And yeah…they can be pretty tasty.

How Are Sweet Wines Made?

Like making mead or brewing beer, there are a number of ways to produce something that classifies as sweet, wine, and delicious.

Option 1: Fortified

Fortification produces some of the strongest sweet wines out there. Port is a perfect example. The process goes like this: A winemaker purposely interrupts fermentation with an already made alcohol (ex. brandy). Not only does this halt fermentation, it leaves residual sugar and Hulk-ifies the final ABV (think 20% vs. 15%).

Option 2: Filtered

If Bruce Bannering the wine isn’t desired, filtering out the yeast during fermentation is another (less intense) option. In this case, a super fine filter is needed. Once the yeast is removed, the fermentation stops. 

Option 3: Frozen

Canada’s Icewine has long prospered from using frozen grapes. Waiting to harvest grapes in the winter allows them to freeze and, when crushed, produce a v-e-r-y concentrated grape syrup. No interruption to fermentation needed.

Option 4: Blended

Another option is to blend a sweetener into the wine after it has fermented, so long as the sweetener is naturally sweet. Just throwing in a bunch of sugar post-fermentation will result in many cry face emojis.  

Option 5: Botrytized

When fungus appears…befriend it? That’s pretty much the essence of a botrytized wine. Noble Rot (or Botrytis Cinerea) is a fungus that causes grapes to shrivel and look like raisins. With the water gone, winemakers are left with less-than-tantalizing-looking grapes that, ironically, produce incredibly tantalizing wine.

These are but a few ways to make sweet wine. Again, no matter what process is used, the end goal remains the same: wine with residual sugar. 

Types of Sweet Wines

Four wine glasses on top of a barrel. Different wine in each glass.

Image: Maksym Kaharlytski / Unsplash

There are many kinds of sweet wines, all which fall under one of the following categories.

1. Rosés

People drink rosé like it’s water. We’re not saying that’s 100% a good thing, but it does point to the wine’s popularity. When’s the last time you went to brunch and didn’t see someone draining sipping a glass of rosé? 

Rosé is fruit-forward. Expect hints of strawberry and cherry, along with plenty of citrus. Flowers, too (there’s a reason rosé is a go-to summertime beverage). Old World (European) rosés tend to be more on the dry side, whereas New World (non-European) rosés are what classify it as a sweet wine.

2. Sweet white wines

Sweet white wines leverage the magical properties of flowers, fruit, and honey to produce something that’s crisp, fresh, flavorful, and easy on the taste buds. In other words, if wine is new to you, then a sweet white wine might just be the welcoming hand you need to guide you into a world of wonder.

Popular sweet white wines include: moscato (Italy), Sauternes (France), and riesling (Germany).

3. Sweet reds

Yes, reds can be sweet too! Red wines like black muscat, Brachetto d’Acqui, and shiraz are sure to add a touch of sweetness to your life. 

You can also find touches of sweetness in general red wine types like merlots, cabs, pinot noirs, and zinfandels. It just depends on the winemaker and the process used.

4. Port

And then there was port. Originating from Portugal, port is a bona fide post-meal wine, the reason being that port is extremely sweet and holds a high ABV. It’s not something you would drink in moderate quality, nor would you want its richness to take away from your meal.

If you were to have a port with something, then dessert is the answer. Just make sure it’s sweeter than whatever tasty treat is being served.  

Choosing a Sweet Wine

Ah, glorious options. Two parts amazing, one part stressful. How to choose when there are so many brands, types, and styles? 

Start with your own palette. As we mentioned before, beginning wine drinkers will benefit from starting with sweet[er] wines like rosés and moscatos. 

And if you’re curious about sweetness intensity, winemakers and sommeliers use a “dry scale” to determine it:

  • Dry: (00-0)
  • Off-dry: (1-2)
  • Medium or semi-sweet (3-4)
  • Sweet (5-6)
  • Very sweet (7+)
Whatever you decide, the best way to figure out what you like is to try different wines. Or, might we suggest some mead?