This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Until recently the range of sweet wines on offer, in the UK at least, was seriously limited. Other than fortified wines such as various ports, sherries and madeiras, we could choose from very sticky Spanish Moscatels, heavily sulphured Loire whites and Sauternes of extremely varied quality but pretty high prices.
Now not only has the quality of these classic sweet whites improved enormously, we have also started to see good, sweet wines available at relatively modest prices from the southern hemisphere, as well as the odd Canadian icewine at rather steeper prices. This is partly due to the conclusion of agreements between the EU and various New World countries which now allow them to export naturally sweet wines to Europe. This new flowering of tempting and original sweet wines may also be due to a spurt of creativity on the part of both producers and importers. I think it unlikely to have been inspired by demand from the average wine consumer who has long seemed discouragingly lukewarm about sweet wines.
Australia is perhaps the most obvious source of well-priced, easy-to-gulp sweet wine, with De Bortoli's Noble One being an early emissary. Today we can choose from a wide range of wines whose sweetness has been concentrated by botrytis, or noble rot, that is the result of foggy autumn mornings in the irrigated inland wine regions of Australia, notably Riverina in New South Wales. Good heavens, even the makers of Yellow Tail, the most successful wine brand in recent wine trade history, can field Tesco Finest Botrytis Semillon 2004 South Eastern Australia (£5.49 per half bottle Tesco) which is bursting with unctuous fruit, checked by zippy acidity and even displays the telltale rather cabbagey smell of botrytis.
More refined and zesty than this, but with even more obvious botrytis influence, is Tamar Ridge Limited Release Botrytis Riesling 2005 Tasmania (about £12 a half from Lay & Wheeler, Great Western Wines, Cellar Door). This is much lighter and racier, with just nine per cent alcohol and is a recommended partner for treacle tart with apple sherbet by wine-loving restaurateur Roger Jones of The Harrow, Little Bedwyn, stalwart of our members' forum.
Australia's traditional sweet wine strength, strength being apposite in this context, was so-called Liqueur Muscat and Tokay, cask-aged essence of these grapes matured for years in cask in boiling hot sheds in north east Victoria so that they eventually taste like a cross between grape syrup, madeira and molasses. A first growth example of the style is Chambers Rosewood Rutherglen Grand Muscat (£24.45 a half Lay & Wheeler) which offers the sensation of drinking creamy rum toffee, quickly followed by dental guilt. This is Australia's single most distinctive wine style; only Andalucia's Pedro Ximénez (see below) is sweeter.
Majestic has unearthed a bargain example of the style in Buller's Fine Old Muscat NV Victoria (£9.99 Majestic), the price applying to a full-size, if not exactly sophisticated-looking, bottle. The lovely rose petal colour suggests the great age of a Rutherglen Muscat and on the palate there's that molten treacle toffee sensation with a little of the rancio tang that comes from prolonged cask ageing. Majestic has also tracked down an exceptionally well-priced sweet wine from South Africa in the creamy, peachy Almond Grove Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2006 Robertson which is only £6.99 a half bottle (£4.99 if two are bought). This is not for keeping, but it is extraordinarily easy to dispose of.
Another sweet wine that could open the floodgates for an influx of creative Spanish alternatives to all that golden Moscatel is Casa de la Ermita, Dulce Viognier 2005 Jumilla (£6.99 Bibendum, who are moving on to the 2006 vintage). This bright orange essence of the Condrieu grape certainly isn't subtle but it has good acidity to counterbalance its slight syrupiness. This is quite a bargain for the strong hearted.
Of course the more classic Spanish stickie is treacly PX, most of it from the Montilla-Moriles region. Alvear Pedro Ximénez Añada 2004 Montilla-Moriles (£8.95 per 50cl flask, Genesis Wines and a recent wine of the week) is a particularly fine example that manages to be refreshing as well as unctuous.
Just over the French border, Roussillon has long produced a wide range of stunning sweet wines, aged for years and practically given away. Arnaud de Villeneuve, Hors d'Age 1982 Rivesaltes (£10.99 per 50cl Waitrose) may be rather intriguingly named but it's great value for a Muscat blend that is nearly a quarter of a century old. It is clearly the super-grapey product of heat and long wood ageing and what counterbalances the extreme sweetness in this case is not acidity but tannin.
This principle is taken to an extreme in a French wine from rather further north, Marie-Linne Barré, Tanatis Vin de Liqueur
(£12.99 Caves de Pyrène) which tastes like a sort of super-tannic cross between claret and port that is bracingly fresh and clean. Made from Tannat grapes grown near Cahors, chosen by Andrew Jefford as his Absolutely Cracking Wine from France, it is recommended with dark chocolate.
It could hardly be more different from the unctuously golden charms of a good Sauternes, and there are lots of these to choose from, the style being, unfortunately, far from fashionable. One of the best-priced is Ch Monteils 2005 Sauternes (£7.95 a half Lea & Sandeman) which is so big and rich it could happily take on Roquefort, but shows none of the slightly mouldy or sulphurous smells that so often betray cheap Sauternes. Berry Bros are offering the fully mature Ch Sigalas Rabaud 1997 Sauternes at £19 a half and this rich, rewarding wine is a fine example from an excellent vintage that is already a great pleasure to drink. One of the better buys at Asda supermarkets currently is the thoroughly grown-up, concentrated and luscious Ch Haut-Bergeron 2002 Sauternes at £9.56 per half.
Even better value, rom Loire Chenin Blanc grapes, is Domaine Cady, Les Chavagnes 2002 Coteaux du Layon
(£7.99 a half Thresher) which provides a lovely refreshing breath of summer with some botrytis and a lot of sweetness. From a very successful vintage and producer, this is far from heavy or super-luscious, so should not be served with anything too sweet – a fruit tart perhaps.
Seriously tart yet gorgeously sweet is Domaine de Montesquiou, Grappe d'Or 2004 Jurançon (£12.30 Leon Stolarski, www.lsfinewines.co.uk) is perfect with mince pies, so long as the pastry is not too sweet.
Bava Moscato d'Asti Frizzante (£6.95 Berry Bros) is particularly light bodied - just 4.5 per cent alcohol - a super-refreshing grapey froth for mid afternoon drinking from the Piemonte family that takes sweet things in general and chocolate in particular so seriously. Berry Bros can also offer a great concentrated sweet red Italian made from semi-dried grapes in the form of Corte Sant'Alda 2003 Recioto della Valpolicella (£25 per 50cl) which would be a wonderful match with cheese.
Burgenland in Austria has all manner of super-rich sweet wines that are best drunk young. Feiler-Artinger Beerenauslese 2004 (£9.99 a half Waitrose) and Feiler-Artinger Ruster Ausbruch 2004 (£11 a half Fortnum & Mason) are particularly fine examples.
See www.winesearcher.com for international stockists.