If you’re new to the world of red wine, you may be intimidated by the bone-dry, tannic, highly acidic choices on the market. These wines are complex and interesting but may seem intimidating to the uninitiated. If you prefer sweeter wines, you don’t have to stick to whites like Moscato or Riesling. There are a huge variety of sweet red wines out there that anybody, even a novice wine drinker, is sure to adore.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about why certain wines are sweeter than others and give you recommendations for our absolute favorite types of sweet red wine.
What makes red wine sweet?
Sweet red wines begin their journey the same way dry red wines do. Red grapes are crushed and fermented with the skin and seeds, which imparts more flavor and color into the wines. While this mixture ferments, the grape sugar is converted into alcohol. Sweet mines are produced by stopping the fermentation a bit earlier and leaving some grape sugar behind in the wine.
You may wonder if the process used to make sweet red wines means they have a lower ABV% than dry red wines, which are allowed to ferment for a longer time. This can be true in some cases, but it’s not true all across the board.
The alcohol content is crucial to the flavor harmony and balance of a wine. Red wines tend to have a higher ABV% than white wines. This is not due to any intrinsic properties of the grapes themselves but is usually a choice made by winemakers to help balance their red wines. Red wines contain tannins, a bitter compound found in grape skins, which are not present in white wines. Winemakers attempt to balance the tannins with increased alcohol, sugar, and acidity, making the wine harmonious.
There are two ways sweet red wine can be made. The first is, as described above, stopping the fermentation early to leave some residual grape sugar. The second method involves adding brandy, or other distilled spirits, to the wine after it’s finished fermenting. These wines are called fortified wines, and they aim to reach a higher level of alcohol than fermentation alone. Examples of fortified wines include port and sherry.
It’s important to recognize the distinction between sweet red wines that are fortified and naturally distilled. Fortified wines are much more alcoholic, and thus, the servings are usually much smaller. Since they tend to be sweet, the alcohol content is often disguised, so it’s important to be conscious of how many glasses you’re drinking.
Best unfortified sweet red wines
First, we’re going to discuss our favorite natural, unfortified, sweet red wines.
1. Brachetto d’Acqui
Brachetto d’Acqui is a sweet red wine hailing from Piedmont, Italy. The wine is a light, ruby red color and has strawberry, sweet cherry sauce, raspberry, violet, and rose candy. It is medium-light in the body, with medium acidity and no tannins. It’s not very alcoholic, usually under 10% ABV.
There are three official types of Brachetto d’Acqui. The first is the basic type you’ll see most often, Brachetto d’Acqui Rosso. It is slightly fizzy and is known for having a low ABV, usually around 5.5%.
The next variety is Brachetto d’Acqui Spumante, a fully sparkling version that is slightly more alcoholic, usually 6% ABV.
The third variety, Brachetto d’Acqui Passito, is richer and sweeter. The grapes for this version are picked and hand-dried on wooden racks for several weeks, then pressed to produce wine. Brachetto d’Acqui Passito wines are very sweet and have a higher alcohol content, up to 11% ABV.
A bottle of Brachetto d’Acqui we love is the Stella Rosa Imperiale Brachetto d’Acqui.
Lambrusco is a fruity red wine from Emilia-Romagna, a region also known for Parmesan Reggiano cheese. Not all Lambruscos are sweet, so make sure to look for labels that say Semisecco, Amabile, or Dolce if you’re looking for a sweet style. Lambrusco wines can range in color from pale ruby to dark purple and usually have aromas of blueberry, cherry sauce, violet, and red currant. Most Lambruscos are light in alcohol, with ABVs that range from 11% to 12%.
Lambrusco is technically a grouping of about ten different grape varieties and 11 unique subregions. Most of the Lambruscos you’ll see on the market comes from the three top production regions of Lambrusco Modena, Lambrusco Emilia, and Lambrusco Reggiano.
3. Recioto della Valpolicella
From the same region that produces Amarone della Valpolicella comes Recioto della Valpolicella, a very fine, sweet passito wine. Recioto della Valpolicella is rich, with aromas of black cherry, cranberry, vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate. A well-made Recioto della Valpolicella can age from 20-30 years, softening the wine and bringing out fig, sassafras, and coffee flavors.
Dornfelder is a German variety of red grapes that is more difficult to find in the US but very popular in Germany. Dorfelder wines come primarily from Germany’s Rheinhessen and Pfalz regions and offer cherries, fresh blackberry, and spiced herbs. Dorfelder wines range from dry to sweet, so make sure to look for the words süss or süß on the label, as these indicate that the wine inside is a sweet variety.
Best fortified sweet red wines
Fortified wines will have higher alcohol content, which helps preserve the sweet taste, as the fortifying process kills the yeast and stops the fermentation. Since these wines have an increased ABV%, we recommend a smaller serving than you’d usually pour.
Port wine hails from the Douro region of Northern Portugal. It is usually made by blending a few different full-bodied grape varieties, like Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão. Ports can also be white, but you can expect plum, dried cherry, chocolate, raisin, and cinnamon flavors from the red varieties.
Ports are very sweet and full-bodied, with high tannins to balance out the sugar content. They have a medium-high acidity and a very high alcohol content. Port comes in a wide variety of styles, which are largely based on the aging technique used. Common styles include Ruby and Tawny.
6. Mavrodaphne of Patras
Mavrodaphne of Patras is a sweet fortified wine from Greece, made in the Patras region of Peloponnese, a peninsula southwest of Athens. This region is still developing, so there is some variation between bottles. Mavrodaphne wines are usually very sweet, with aromas of black currant, dates, figs, and black pepper and a rich texture.
7. Black Muscat
Black Muscat, also known as Muscat of Hamburg, is a unique grape variety cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Schiava and has flavors of candied apple, rose, violet, cotton candy, perfume, and cinnamon. Unfortunately, it is a very rare variety, so be sure to snatch it up if you see a bottle.
8. Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice
Vin Santo is an interesting sweet wine, made primarily in Tuscany with Malvasia, a white wine grape. The Occhio di Pernice variety is a rare red style of Vin Santo made primarily with Tuscany’s most popular grape, Sangiovese. It’s rarely fortified, but it has the same richness as other fortified sweet wines, which is why it’s in this category.
It’s made using the passito grape-drying method and fermented very slowly, resulting in wines with rich tawny color and nutty aromas. These wines are very viscous, with aromas of fig, date, hazelnut, and maraschino cherry.
If you prefer sweet wines over dry ones, you might think you’re limited to white wines and rosés. While sweet red wines are less common, plenty is bursting with juicy fruit flavor and sweetness. Whether you’re going the unfortified route or choosing an easier-to-find fortified variety, you’re sure to enjoy all of the sweet red wines on the list above. For all your sweet wine delivery needs, you can trust Saucey.