What are dessert wines?
Dessert wine is another name for a sweet wine that is classically served at the end of a meal. This category includes fortified wine styles like Sherry and Port, late-harvest wines, and wines made from botrytized grapes, like Sauternes and Tokaji Aszu. Dessert wines usually have a higher sugar and alcohol level than dry wines.
No matter which region they are produced in, the best dessert wines express great complexity on the nose. Their bouquet often reveals a mix of dry fruit and honey notes while the palate offers a kaleidoscope of flavors.
How are dessert wines made?
Sweet dessert wines are made in many different ways, which can be divided into two main categories. In the first category are sweet wines made from grapes that are grown in a way that allows them to achieve high sugar levels. This category includes late harvest wine, ice wine, noble rot wine and passito wine or straw wine. In the second category are sweet wines made by changing the winemaking. This includes chaptalization and fortification.
Late harvest wines are those made from grapes harvested later in the growing season. This results in late harvest grapes that are sweeter and riper, with a higher alcohol potential. Late harvest wine is made around the world and from a wide range of grapes. Some of the best examples are the Spatlese and Auslese wines made from Riesling in Germany. These sweet white wines reveal luscious flavors of pear, apple and honeysuckle. On the palate, a high natural acidity balances the sugar.
Ice wine (or Eiswein) is a kind of “extra late harvest” wine, made from grapes left on the vine until they freeze. The frozen grapes have a very concentrated sweetness and high acidity. This style is only made in cold climates, like Canada and Germany. The most classic examples are made from Riesling in Germany and Austria. Ice wine is one of the most prized categories of sweet dessert wine.
What are Noble Rot dessert wines?
Botrytized wines are some of the most popular types of dessert wines, Sauternes and Tokaji Aszu being just two classic examples. By this style, a fungus named Botrytis cinerea (Noble Rot) infects the grape clusters. The fungus pores microscopic holes in the fruit, leading them to dry out slowly. This concentrates the sugars and flavors in the wine. Botrytized white wines include the Sauternes from Bordeaux in France, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) from Germany and Tokaji Aszu from the Tokaj region of Hungary. Botrytized wines are known for pairing beautifully with blue cheese.
What are passito dessert wines?
Another way of concentrating the sugars in the fruit is by allowing the grapes to dry out or raisin before fermentation. This method is known as passito in Italy and is used to produce vin de paille (straw wine) in the French regions of Alsace, Jura and the Rhone Valley. It is also used to make wine in South Africa, and in California and Washington in the United States. The best known examples are the Vin Santo wines of Tuscany, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, and the sweet red wine Recioto della Valpolicella Classico in Italy. Sparkling Moscato d’Asti wines are also produced from dried grapes.
Now let’s take a look at dessert wine made sweet through winemaking. Fortified wines are produced by adding a grape brandy at some point in the winemaking process. The high alcohol of the brandy kills the yeast, halting fermentation and resulting in more residual sugar in the wine. It also increases the alcohol content of the wine.
What are fortified dessert wines?
Port is a fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal. These sweet red dessert wines fall into two categories. Ruby Port (which includes Late-Bottled Vintage and Vintage Port) is stored in tanks after fermentation to prevent oxidation. This results in a wine with a bright red color. Its tasting notes often mention red berry fruit flavors and chocolate aromas. Meanwhile Tawny Port, like 10-Year Old Tawny Port wine is made with oxidative winemaking and offers aromas of caramel, toffee and nuts.
Sherry is a fortified wine made in Montilla Moriles, Spain and ranges from dry to sweet. The sweet wines are usually produced from a blend of three grape varieties: Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. Sherry wines are aged in a very unique solera aging system, by which young wines are used to top up older barrels. This leads to very complex multi-vintage blends. The sweet styles are produced through oxidative winemaking and include Cream, Pedro Ximenez and Moscat with aromas of dried fruits, like figs and prunes.
Madeira is another fortified wine produced on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Here, winemakers have chosen intentional oxidation to produce wines with aromas of bruised apples and apricots. These wines also have a nutty, caramel touch and tend to be light amber to tawny in color.
Vin Doux Naturel (which means “naturally sweet”) wines are also made by halting fermentation. These wines are usually made from Muscat or Grenache. One of the most famous examples of this category are the wines of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise produced in the Rhone Valley.
And finally, in the Malvasia delle Lipari appellation of Sicily, the passito method and fortification are combined to produce a wine with a sweet white wine with high alcohol and high sugar levels. These wines are noted for their unique volcanic terroir, thought to give a distinctive aroma to these wines.
Any questions on dessert wines?
We hope you have enjoyed our guide to dessert wines! For food and wine pairing suggestions with these wines or for more information, do not hesitate to reach out to our team directly! Otherwise, please take some time to browse our dessert wine selection below!