Noble late harvest, vin de paille, natural sweet, muscadel and jerepigo. What’s it all about? Fiona McDonald covers the basics of Sweet Wine 101.
Sugar is essential to winemaking. After all, it’s the grape sugar which is converted into alcohol by yeast during the fermentation process. And even in dry wines, like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon there’s a small amount of residual sugar which remains – but it doesn’t make those wines sweet.
Sweet wines are at the other end of the spectrum and there’s a host of different styles. Some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet, like Hungary’s Tokay or France’s Chateau d’Yquem or even the fabled Vin de Constance. Richly sweet, they enter into the hallowed halls of nectar of the gods or ambrosia …
Noble rot is the layman’s term for Botrytis cinerea, a type of fungus that forms on the ripening bunches when certain conditions like high humidity levels are present. The mould sends a probe through the skin of the grape’s berry and then sucks up the moisture inside, concentrating the sugars in each berry in the process.
What sets NLH or botrytized wines apart is the superb balance of acidity which counters the high sugar levels of the resultant wine. Frequently they have 100 to 150 or even 200g/ℓ of residual sugar. Were it not for the counterbalancing effect of acidity the wines would simply be sticky and almost intolerable.
And since they rely on the headily aromatic, floral muscat grape for this historic wine once drunk by Napoleon Bonaparte, what’s the difference then between a muscadel and a jerepigo/jerepiko? The trick is in when the spirit is added …
Both muscadel and jerepigo are fortified wines – which means they have alcoholic spirit (usually grape brandy) added to them. To be a muscadel the wine has to be made from muscat grapes, firstly. For white muscadel generally muscat d’Alexandrie (also known as hanepoot) or muscat blanc à petit grains are used while red muscadel is from muscat de frontignan.
By contrast, jerepigo never undergoes any fermentation. It’s simply grape juice to which spirit – generally brandy spirit – is added.
And straw wine, also known as vin de paille? That’s when (non-muscat!) grapes are picked late, when ripe and sweet (again, with no botrytis influence) and then laid out on straw mats to shrivel and dry in the sun. This semi-raisining also concentrates the sugars before the grapes are turned into wine.
In the 1990s muscat was the sixth most planted grape in South African soil, comfortably outstripping cabernet sauvignon. That’s no longer the case with muscat now making up less than 2% of the national vineyard.