Some of the world’s finest wines are sweet. Often crafted from individually harvested clusters that yield the ripest grapes, these wines are beautiful, luscious, rich and memorable. Take one sip, and you’re hooked.
Except that we don’t often take that sip. We drink dry wine because it goes with food or it serves as an apéritif. When it comes to sweet wine, we don’t know how, where or when to drink it, or how it should be paired. We asked four experts to debunk the old mythology surrounding French sweet wines and recommend pairings that work with everyday food.
Famed for its dry Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, Alsace produces rich sweet wines from the same grapes. Thanks to the sunny, warm autumnal weather, producers let the grapes hang to achieve a late-harvest richness (Vendange Tardive) or shriveled berries that go into the rare Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN). Though Gewurztraminer is a natural for both these styles, the greatest wines come from Riesling, which provides a magical balance between sweetness, richness and crisp acidity. Both styles age for many years.
Alsace-born Master Sommelier Michaël Engelmann of The Modern in New York City suggests seared scallops in a Thai coconut-curry sauce, paired with a 10-year-old Vendange Tardive. For SGN, he says, “I just have to go down the foie gras or liver pâté road.”
Coteaux du Layon
Just south of the city of Angers, the narrow valley of the Layon river creates perfect conditions for sweet, botrytized wines from the chameleon Chenin Blanc grape: misty autumn mornings followed by sunny afternoons. The wines come from many different appellations, but look for Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume and Chaume Premier Cru. Wines with village names attached to Coteaux du Layon are better than those with just Coteaux du Layon. These are all wines with sweetness and intense acidity in equal measure, and they dance with freshness.
Master Sommelier Peter Granoff of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant & Wine Bar in San Francisco likes pairing with the aromatic spices found in curries from India and neighboring countries. He says they “are nicely complemented by botrytis influence in wines, especially if [the wines] still have refreshing acidity.”
Barsac, along with Sauternes, is a sweet wine region in Bordeaux where Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes shine. Shriveled by the morning mists and afternoon sun, the botrytized grapes deliver extreme concentration. While Sauternes produces rich, opulent wines, those from Barsac are a bit lighter. Despite their richness, both wines possess the acidity essential for any great sweet wine. You can find some good buys, but even the top wines are bargains, considering the extreme work that goes into making them.
Aline Baly of Château Coutet in Barsac notes that foods with an ocean brininess work well with the wines’ minerality. “Crustaceans are a great example, as their fresh sea flavor will be a superb contrast to both the sweetness and mineral quality of the wine.”
In terraced vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, two of the finest and most unknown grapes, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, produce the wines of Jurançon. They are poised and balance acidity and sweetness. To some, especially in France, these are the greatest sweet wines of all. Not as rich as some others, they are light and feature apricot and tropical fruits as well as the sweetness that comes from botrytized grapes. They are delicious when young, but capable of aging several years.
“When it comes to pairing the sweet wines of Jurançon with savory dishes, I’m inclined to lean towards game meats that are often paired with fruit to impart a natural savory versus sweet competitive balance, or [for] a concerted effort to tame the game,” says Brett Feore, head sommelier at The Musket Room in New York City.
Last Updated: May 4, 2023