After spending a whole morning tasting sweet wines, Yolanda Ortiz de Arri and I ended with sticky fingers. Wine glasses, coated with legs of glycerin, had to be thoroughly washed up, yet we felt excited with the range and quality we found. Wine lovers looking for depth and complexity should really think sweet more often. It’s sad to see how this style of wines has fallen out of fashion, pushed away from the 21st century’s daily wine consumption habits.
Winter evenings by the fireplace and the joyful meals of the festive season may help to rescue sweet wines from oblivion —they may even find a small place within our busy everyday lives when everything goes back to normal after Christmas. I find that the most concentrated styles (Oloroso, PX, sweet rancio wines or fortified Muscats) are a superb pick-me-up for those days when you feel drained of energy. Fresh, fragrant Muscats pair well with non-sweet and spicy dishes, notably Asian food. Sweet reds evoking the grape varieties they come from (Monastrell, Garnacha from Priorat or Montsant, Tintilla de Rota) may be a pinnacle at gatherings of wine lovers where everyone tries to come up with the most original bottle. But perhaps the easiest pairing comes with cheese —with one proviso: the more powerful and cured a cheese is the more con-centrated the sweet wine needs to be.
Last week we published a feature on Málaga’s sweet wines with lots of interesting ideas to try from that region. For today’s feature, we have searched across the rest of the country. Wines have been grouped using a personal view, but we hope you find the list useful and practical.
Ochoa Moscatel Late Harvest 2014, Navarra. This fresh, grapey wine is our favorite in terms of value. Made with Muscat à Petit Grains since 1994, it was initially a natura-ly sweet wine; from the 2011 vintage the style has changed —it’s now fortified— gaining in density and weight. It manages to retain all the freshness and character of Muscat grapes (just like biting a crisp grain) combined with honeyed notes and a small explosion of clean herbs (lavender). This savoury, lively sweet wine ends with a spicy white pepper note and is a great introduction to Muscats. Only €12.40 a 50 cl. bottle at Bodegas Santa Cecilia and currently on offer for €10.25 at El Corte Inglés. More options via Wine Searcher. 15% vol.
Alvear PX 1927, Montilla-Moriles. Made from sun-dried grapes as it’s the norm in Andalucía’s Montilla-Moriles region, Alvear PX 1927 offers lots of concentration and is a terrific value. Aged for up to five years under the traditional solera system, this is a text book, mahogany coloured PX with distinctive stickiness. Well defined flavors such as raisins, toffee, crème caramel and dried fruits (hazelnuts) with velvety texture and complex toasty nuances evolving towards a long finish. Ridiculously priced, a 75cl. bottle costs from €9.95 at Enterwine. Other options via Wine Searcher. 16% vol.
Another bargain is the fortified Moscatel Oro “Los Cuartillos” from Primitivo Collantes winery in Chiclana (Cádiz), a classic, oxidatively aged Muscat offering honeyed, orange zest, dried apricots, cappuccino and slightly briny aromas. This is a medium-bodied, comforting sweet wine with enough acidity at an excellent price. €5.75,75 cl. at the winery’s online store. 15% vol.
Casta Diva Cosecha Miel 2013, Gutiérrez de la Vega. This is an outstanding, well-known Spanish Muscat (Moscatel de Alejandría) that no longer bears the Alicante appellation label after Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega decided to abandon the DO –he has his own ideas about the region's traditional sweet wines. Even if a 50cl bottle will set you back €15+, we think that it perfectly reflects the essence of a Mediterranean Muscat and goes beyond expectations. Deep golden colour. Grapey, honeyed nose showing good concentration with stone fruit (peach), candied orange zest and vanilla aromas; a text book Mediterranean Muscat. It is a viscous, compact sweet Muscat, with enough acidity and a fruit-driven mid-palate with pleasant herbal aromas that add complexity; persistent. Made with overripe grapes, alcohol is added to stop fermentation in the barrels. It gracefully retains the varietal character of a fresh, young Muscat and the density and complexity of oxidative aging styles. €16.25 for a 50cl bottle at Decántalo. More options via Wine Searcher.
Suertes del Marqués Listán Blanco Malvasía, Valle de la Orotava (Canary Islands). Only 120, 50 cl. bottles have been made of this rarity. It won the Peñin Guide’s Best New Wine award a few weeks ago. Malvasia grapes were harvested in 2011 and come from a plot where vines were uprooted some time later. Only one 300l barrel was made from which small quantities (“sacas”) are released every year. The space is filled with Listán Blanco sweet wine, so this may be considered a tiny solera. In both cases, grapes were harvested slightly later than those destined for still wines, then fermented up to 80-90 g/l of residual sugar and fortified. The November 2014 release is the first one on the market —they have been waiting for the oak to soften. Fine wood and dried fruit aromas remind of sherry but the palate is vibrant and lush with tangerine, baked apples and stone fruit notes. Really striking. Its moderate sweetness will make it highly versatile to pair with food. Available from January 2016 at Madrid’s La Tintorería for €25 approx. In the UK it is already available in Fera at Claridges and Gordon Ramsay’s The Royal Hospital Road. 15% vol.
Cellers d’en Guilla. Sol i Serena de Damigiana, Empordà (Catalonia). Another award-winning wine, in this case it was crowned Best Sweet Wine by the Guide to Catalonia’s Wines. It follows the tradition of oxidative aging in demijohns stored outdoors for two years, a process known as “sol i serena” (literally day and night) in Catalonia. According to the winery’s website, the wines are exposed to “the weather, be it tramuntana (cool Northern wind), cold, snow, heat or sun action”. Despite the quirky packaging, we found this Garnacha Gris (locally called Garnatxa Roja) to be a lovely Christmas treat displaying classic rancio, oxidative aromas as well as dried fruits (hazelnuts, toasted almonds). Moderately sweet on the palate, this wine does not feel heavy at all and ends with a creamy and pleasant finish. Great to pair with Christmas puddings. €33,85 for 50 cl. at Casa Ribas. 15% vol..
Colección Vivanco Dulce de Invierno 4 Varietales 2013 Late Harvest, Rioja. Noble rot fungus attacks grape bunches in such a way that it causes dehydration without losing acidity. This little miracle, found in the revered sweet wines of Sauternes and Tokaj, rarely takes places in Spain, except for a few exceptions such as this Vivanco wine made with Rioja’s traditional red grapes (Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha, Mazuelo) harvested as late as January. Light red in colour, this delicate wine displays earthy, kirsch and sloe aromas. Good acidity with vibrant red fruit on the palate and liquor-filled chocolate notes on the finish. Far from the concentrated styles, but balanced —subtlety claims its place in the sweet category. €18.95 for 37.5 cl. at Vinisssimus. 13.5% vol.
Chivite Colección 125 Vendimia Tardía 2010, Navarra. A classic among Spain’s sweet wines pioneering the recovery of the Muscat à Petit Grains in Navarra alongside Ochoa. Sourced from El Candelero vineyard, this vintage was handpicked in 12 separate selections from October to December. We’re back to fragrant Muscat. Complex nose with Muscat berry aromas, peach skin, candied fruit, herbs (basil), tangerine and pink grapefruit. Full-bodied palate with concentrated fruit, a distinctive Muscat character and great sweet-acid-sour balance. From €25.4 for 37.5 cl. at Decántalo. Other options via Wine Searcher. 13.5% vol.
Matusalem Cream VORS, González Byass, Jerez. Formerly known as a sweet Oloroso, Cream is the official category for wines including sweet PX in the blend according to new regulations in Sherry. This was a real favourite as it managed to combine power and elegance. Mahogany colour. Serious nose with petrol, varnish, nuts, old wood and briny aromas. Alcohol plays a big role on the palate but the wine finishes with a lovely creaminess and fine dried fruit notes. €55 for 75cl. at the winery’s online store. Other options via Wine Searcher. 20.5% vol.
De Muller Áureo Dulce Añejo 1954, Tarragona. Established in 1851 and currently located in Reus (Tarragona), this is one of the biggest Holy Mass wine producers in Spain and a great specialist in sweet wines made from both red and white Garnacha. This blend (70% Garnacha Tinta, 30% Garnacha Blanca) comes from one of De Muller’s old soleras. Reddish mahogany colour. Rancio character with hazelnuts and antique shop aromas and a powerful, concentrated and warm style. The enveloping texture certainly tempers the burning feeling, but alcohol is very much present. From €14.40 for 75cl. at Vinissimus. Other options via Wine Searcher. 20% vol.
Moscatel Promesa Valdespino, José Estévez, Jerez. With an alcohol content of 17% vol, this is a fortified wine made from overripe Muscat grapes and aged under the solera system for four years. It brings me back to childhood when we kids were allowed a small sip of sweet wine on special occasions (very non-PC these days!). Mahogany colour. Wood, nuts, burnt sugar, tobacco aromas followed by a cloying, intense palate. €12 for 75cl. at the winery’s online store. Other options via Wine Searcher.
Jané Ventura Malvasía de Sitges 2013, Penedès. This grape variety was preserved thanks to Sitges Hospital’s vineyards from where Jané Ventura, a producer who has worked with both dry and sweet Malvasia styles, sourced its cuttings. Grapes in this wine were left to dry at Mas Vilella’s pigeon house for 10-12 weeks. Honeyed, herbs (rosemary) and citrus zest (tangerine, lime) aromas are followed by an unctuous palate with such vibrant acidity that it almost feels ethereal. To be released soon. 13% vol.
Malvasia de Sitges, known in Spain as Aromatic Malvasia, is also grown in Lipari and Sardinia in Italy, Croatia as well as Stiges and the Canary Islands, except in Lanzarote where Malvasía Volcánica seems to be the result of a natural cross with the indigenous Marmajuelo white grape.
Canari Malvasía Vino Dulce de Solera, Lanzarote. Juan José Otamendi, owner of El Grifo, inspired himself in the ancient canary sacks. He thinks they were shipped as young wines to England where they were later fortified. His Canari, aged in the solera system, is a blend of three vintages: 1956, 1979 and 1997. An amber colour wine with complex aromas of varnish, quince, candied oranges, vanilla and toasted wood. It fills the palate with depth rather than concentration; neither too sweet nor heavy, €25.50 for 50cl. at Cavamanía. 17% vol.
Celler La Muntanya Malvasía 2010 is a naturally sweet wine made in Alicante with grapes from very old vines that are dried in the shade and are later aged in barrels for about 10 months. Reddish amber color, it follows a warm (alcohol feels high here) concentrated style (skins, maceration, toasted aromas) and toasted flavours on the finish. €19.5 for 37.5cl at Ideavinos. 15.5% vol.
Most of the wines grouped here are made with Monastrell except for a Priorat Garnacha. Despite most of them being fortified wines —therefore containing added alcohol— they are closer to modern dry reds in terms of colour and fruit than to traditional oxidative styles.
El Sequé Monastrell 2011 Dulce, Alicante. A big favourite even if it can be considered rather atypical. Jammy red fruits dominate on the nose but the most distinctive aromas seem to explore Monastrell’s balsamic dimension (pine trees, resin, nettle and other herbs). A powerful, intense wine with moderate sweetness, it can match a varied range of foods, and will surely be very welcomed by red wine lovers. Despite its high alcohol content, it doesn’t feel heavy at all which is why we have preferred to place it in this group. Moreover, there’s little connection with traditional styles. €28.50 for a 75 cl. bottle and 15,75 € the 37.5cl. bottle at the winery’s online store. 18.5% vol.
Castaño Monastrell 2013 Dulce, Yecla. The Castaño family has been making this wine for some time now. Wine is let to ferment until alcohol contents reach 3-4º in order to bring out fermentation aromas that are unnoticed in Mistela wines. In a fresh vintage such as 2013, oak notes seem to be prominent (burnt sugar, caramel) with Monastrell's balsamic character showing on the palate. From €15.65 for 50cl. at Vinissimus. Other options via Wine Searcher. 16% vol.
Dolç de l’Obac 2006, Priorat. Starting on the 1991 vintage this was one of the first modern unfortified sweet wines made in Priorat. A blend of 80% Garnacha left to overripe on the vine together with some Cabernet and Syrah, it really stood out for its dry stone, mineral aromas with some aldehyde, varnish nuances followed by a pleasant texture and, yes, some tannins showing up on the finish. It definitely reflects the place it comes from beyond winemaking styles. Both sugar and alcohol come directly from the grapes. The price is very high though: €79.35 for 50cl. at Bodega Santa Cecilia. 16.5% vol.
Alta Alella Dolç Mataró 2012. Mataró is the local name given to Monastrell in Alella —the same name used in California and Australia, funnily enough. Overripe grapes macerate for six months in barrels but this wine doesn't have the usual levels of concentration found in dessert wines made from this grape. Instead it's full of fresh balsamic notes which balance out the low acidity. Raisins, white chocolate and kirsch aromas are followed by an intriguing green peppery finish. This wine is fortified with grape spirit made from the wine itself through a single destillation method called holandas. The Dolç Mataró is organically certified, as it is the case with the entire production of this winery located in the outskirts of Barcelona. €17.80 for 50cl. at Enterwine. Other options via Wine Searcher. 15% vol.
This is probably the most extreme, dense style of any wine made from raisins. Necessarily fortified since yeasts are unable to ferment such a large amount of sugar, PX wines can contain as much as half a kilo of sugar per litre. No wonder they can be cloying, but aging times help to concentrate their different components, acidity included.
Toró Albalá Don PX 1986, Montilla-Moriles. Statically aged PX (as opposed to the solera system) is still a rarity in which producer Toro Albalá particularly shines. Apart from being one of their youngest, more affordable vintage wines (a real bargain indeed), 1986 is surprisingly exotic, full of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), bay leaves, pistachio, liquorice, preserved citrus fruit and custard. This is an enveloping, moderately dense PX with caramel notes and a long finish. € 26.50 for 0.75cl. at Vinissimus. Other options via Wine Searcher. 17% vol.
La Cañada PX, Pérez Barquero, Montilla-Moriles. This is Pérez Barquero’s premium Pedro Ximénez, a classical producer in the Montilla-Moriles region. The wine is aged for over 25 years in the solera system. Mahogany, almost black colour. Concentrated raisin aromas followed by coffee, toffee, caramel, and briny nuances. Dense, powerful and concentrated —a top example within the category. €44.9 for 75cl. at Lavinia. Other options via Wine Searcher.
Ximénez Spínola PX, Jerez. This is a rarity in Sherry country given that most of the vineyards in the appellation are planted with Palomino. In fact, Ximénez Spínola is the only producer in the area which makes wines exclusively from Pedro Ximénez. This is their premium, numbered wine. A mahogany colour PX displaying honeyed, burnt sugar aromas over a petrol background that sets it apart. The palate is cloying and concentrated with a sweet, long finish. €49.50 for 75cl. at Enterwine. Other options via Wine Searcher. 15% vol.
Gramona Gra a Gra 2011, Penedès. Made by one of Cava’s specialists in extended aging, this blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat à Petit Grains) is made from overripe bunches. Vines are covered with nets to prevent birds from eating the grapes. This is a naturally sweet wine curiously aged in Methusalem six-litre bottles. Deep gold, almost amber colour. The high levels of ripeness add concentration. Honeyed and candied citrus aromas remind of Sauvignon Blanc. Lively palate coated with a rich texture and fine bitter notes. Even if it differs greatly from Spain’s traditional sweet styles, it is very well made. From €20.95 for 37.5cl. at La Vinatería. 12% vol.
Finca Moncloa Tintilla de Rota 2012, VT Cádiz. The latest attempts to recover Andalucia’s indigenous red grape Tintilla de Rota are usually made in a dry style, but González Byass’ Finca Moncloa pioneered a non-oxidative style among sweet wines. Grapes are sun-dried for around 60 hours on straw mats, then aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, so the wine looks very much like a modern, deep red. It is an original combination of aromas ranging from raisins to toasted skins and red fruit. This is a very sweet, enveloping wine, with red and black liquorice flavours, perhaps lacking acidity but interesting anyway. Pretty expensive: €50 for 50cl. at the González Byass’ online shop. 15% vol.
We have added to this section the Itsasmendi Urezti Vendimia Tardía (€18.90 for 50cl. at El Sumiller or via Wine Searcher), a pioneering sweet Txakoli with an Atlantic style (preserved citrus fruit, infusion herbs, medium body, high acidity) or some sweet wines from Rueda like José Pariente Apasionado (€12.40 at Vinissimus), a naturally sweet wine with 11% vol. made from grapes left to overripe on the vine; or the Colección V Dulce de Invierno from Javier Sanz Viticultor (€19,90 the 50 cl. bottle at Bodeboca) made with 80% Verdejo, 20% Moscatel. This one combines three different ways of dehydration: freezing grapes, late harvest and drying grapes and it is not within the Rueda appellation.