The nature of wine
In an age when sugar is cheap and readily available it is easy to forget that before the eighteenth century, and the development of sugar plantations (later supplemented by sugar beet), sweet substances were at a premium. Honey and dried fruit, such as dates and figs with a concentration of sugars at the expense of water, were the main sources; the limited supply of these (especially of dried fruit in northern Europe) made them luxury goods. Wine could be made sweet by leaving the grapes to desiccate (either on the vine or on mats after picking) as recorded by Hesiod in the eighth century BC (Hesiod, n.d./1999). Dry grapes, with an excess of sugar, precluded the fermentation of grape juice to dryness, making the resulting wine another attractive source of sugar. From the sixteenth century AD onwards this method of making sweet wine was supplemented in two ways: first by fortification, which achieved the same effect by arresting fermentation; second by the use of botrytized grapes. Until the nineteenth century sweet wines tended to be the
most prestigious and popular in the world. Only in more modern times has this taste changed (albeit slowly), a trend which has its origins about 150 years ago. Even currently it is possible to recall the popularity of sherry (almost invariably of the medium-dry to sweet variety) in many anglophone countries until about 30 years ago.