The Best Sweet Wine for Christmas 2023

, from Issue #112. November 08, 2023
The Best Sweet Wine for Christmas 2023

Our judges undertook the tooth-shaking task of tasting a tonne of New Zealand's sweetest wines to find the greatest.

At dish, we’re huge champions of sweet treats. So when the call came to highlight New Zealand’s most delicious dessert wine styles for our Christmas issue, our legs went wobbly with excitement and our teeth trembled with anticipation (it’s not the tasting you want to be doing if you haven’t had your cavities seen to by the dentist recently). Our judges were looking for wines with balance. Wines with enough sweetness to feel decadent but also boast enough zesty, refreshing acidity to keep them clean and vibrant.

So how do they end up so sweet?

There are three main methods.

  1. Encouraging Botrytis Cinera infection of the grapes on the vine. (Noble Rot)
  2. Delaying the harvest of ripe grapes. (Late Harvest)
  3. Freezing the grapes. (Ice Wine)

So what is Botrytis? It’s a fungus basically. And if suitable conditions prevail (misty mornings, clear fine days, low humidity) and the botrytis is controlled; the results can create magic in a bottle. Botrytis dehydrates the berry, increasing its natural sugar concentration. It also metabolises acid resulting in wines with a very ‘silky’ mouthfeel. The berries end up looking like dusty, grey, mouldy raisins – heinously ugly - but containing precious little drops of liquid gold inside. And as is the case with Late Harvest and Ice Wine styles, once you add yeast, it’s a slower process than normal because it’s like bubbles trying to rise through honey. Which is why you don’t see many sticky styles around. They’re difficult to make and you’ll never get economies of scale.

One of the great misconceptions about stickies is that they’re loaded with alcohol. Not true. As a rule expect 8 to 12 percent alcohol – less than most dry whites. Another myth is that they’re made by adding sugar – also wrong. The trick is to concentrate the natural sugars present in the grapes – and stop the ferment at the perfect sweetness/ alcohol level.

The wines that came out on top of our tasting are a salubrious smorgasbord showcasing what nature, science and skill can accomplish, with each and every one of them being sinfully good.

TOP OF THE TASTING – Framingham Wines F-Series Marlborough Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese 2022 ($114.99) - Gold Medal

Pronounced ‘trocken beer-en ows laysuh’ it’s a mouthful to say and an out-of-body experience to enjoy. Considered a Southern Hemisphere icon, this incredibly glossy, golden wine erupts with apricot, dried mango and toffee apple tones. Intensely sweet and unctuous, the Framingham team have captured powerful stonefruit, lime and honey-drizzled dried fruit and citrus notes alongside silky, velvety textures. Heavenly.

2. Marisco Vineyards A Sticky End Noble Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($31.99) – Gold Medal

Now this is the sticky end we’re here for. With aromas of fruit brioche and a palate dripping in dried mango, mandarin, lime, Seville marmalade, candied almonds, baked apple and toffee, it’s fresh, juicy, deliciously balanced and energising to sip.

3. Pegasus Bay ENCORE Noble North Canterbury Riesling 2017 ($45.00) – Gold Medal

A masterclass in botrytis brilliance. Richly golden and bursting with intense citrus, candied fruits, caramel and toffee-drizzled peaches around an orange marmalade core. It’s incredibly luxurious, soothing and beautifully balanced. A star.

4. Marisco Vineyards The Ned Noble Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($25.99) – Gold Medal

Sauvignon Blanc is showing its talents in this example of classic, honey-dipped citrus and passionfruit perfection. With creamy butterscotch flowing across lime blossom, hints of herbaceousness and layers of fresh, gum- tingling textures, it’s amazing.

5. Grove Mill Late Harvest Botrytis Marlborough Riesling 2017 ($29.00) – Gold Medal

Just the most gorgeous topaz colour, this shiny-bright star boasts soft mandarin, candied citrus, fenugreek, and honeyed herbal notes, marmalade and creamy, cashew-butter characters across the nose and palate. Gloriously balanced and stunning.

6. Pegasus Bay FINALE Noble North Canterbury Semillon Sauvignon 2021 ($45.00) – Gold Medal

This classic Sauternes blend is gorgeously, glossily golden, scented with toffeed citrus and sun-scorched hay and showing nutty-fresh complexity, masses of spiced marmalade and waxy, rich, multi-layered and warming mouthfeel.

7. Rapaura Springs Gravel Lane Vineyard Marlborough Botrytised Riesling 2018 ($34.90) – Gold Medal

With its glossy topaz colour and aromas of caramelised apple, cinnamon roll spices, and punchy citrus and layers of incredibly fresh, punchy, mandarin and manuka honey flavours it’s sensationally silky and beautifully balanced.

8. Mondillo Nina Late Harvest Central Otago 2022 ($41.00) – Gold Medal

Named after Domenic Mondillo’s late mother Giovanina - a wonderfully sweet Italian lady; affectionately referred to as ‘Nina’, this incredibly floral 60% late harvest riesling roars with candied apple, lemonade and honey notes, apricot intensity and ultra-fresh acidity. Powerfully built and very sexy.

9. Domain Road Vineyard Central Otago Symposium NV ($35.00) – Gold Medal

If the gorgeousness of the bottle doesn’t woo you, what’s inside will wow you. Bursting with lemon honey, candied green apple, soft passionfruit perkiness, this late harvest sauvignon is luscious, lithe and layered with poached pear characters to finish. Delicious.

10. Askerne Hawke’s Bay Noble Kathryn 2020 ($59.90) – Gold Medal

Named after co-founder and matriarch Kathryn Loughlin, this sensational blend of semillon and sauvignon erupts with delicious dried fig, soft herbs, toffee apples and ripe apricot compote alongside crème brulee and a hint of creamed honey and coconut. Sublime.