What is Dessert Wine

Anyone else having a sweet tooth lately? Same.

There seem to be two types of wine drinkers….those who drink dry and those who drink sweet. We all have our favorite wines, but limiting yourself to only reds, whites, dry, or sweet leaves out an entire world of delicious wine.

Unsolicited advice: Try every kind of wine at least twice. If you don’t like a Riesling from Washington State, for example, next time try a Riesling from Alsace, France or Mosel, Germany. You may be surprised by how different they are.

Luckily, we seem to be moving along quickly from the White Zinfandel days of the early 2000s (not to bash on white Zin if your mother still drinks it). But some of those trendy sickly sweet wines gave dessert wines a bad reputation. The timeless dessert wines like Sauternes and Ice Wines need more attention.

What is a Dessert Wine?

A dessert wine is typically classified as a wine that has a Residual Sugar (sugar leftover after fermentation has ended) amount that puts it in the category of off-dry or semi-sweet and above.

Dessert wines are traditionally enjoyed as an after-dinner drink. They can be paired with a dessert or enjoyed by themselves.

But how do they get so sweet? When fermenting alcohol, the yeast essentially eat the sugar and poop out alcohol. In order to have some residual sugar left behind, winemakers end fermentation early, before the yeast have the chance to consume all of the sugar. This can be done in a variety of ways. But the end result is the same; a wine that has higher residual sugar content.

Types of Dessert Wine 

There are four types of dessert wines: Fortified, Late Harvest, Noble Rot, and Passito.

Fortified

Fortified wine is when a wine has a higher alcohol spirit (usually brandy AKA grape spirit) added to it in order to increase the alcohol content.

The most common fortified wines are Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.

Port

Hailing from Douro, Portugal; Port is always sweet and usually a red wine. Port is a blend of indigenous grape varieties, the main being Touriga National.

There are many styles of Port and they are all vastly different. If you prefer something young and vibrant with lots of berry flavors than try a Ruby Port. If you enjoy something a bit nuttier, try Tawny Port. These are aged and oxidizes with flavors of roasted nuts and toffee.

Port wine can be aged for decades; both the sweet and dry wines. A common pairing is Port and blue cheese!

Sherry

Sherry is a complex style of wine and it can be intimidating for many people (me included). In fact, most Sherry is dry, but the fact that Sherry is a traditional ‘after-dinner’ drink has classified it as a dessert wine.

The Spanish region of Jerez is where most Sherry is produced. Sherry is known for their unique Solera aging system. The barrels are stalked in a way that older vintages are topped with the new vintages. Check out this article on the Solera aging system. 

Sherry is made from three indigenous varietals of Spain: Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez (PX), and Moscatel. The more common dry styles of Sherry like Oloroso have flavors of caramel and coffee. The sweeter styles like Vinos Dulce Naturales have flavors of raisin, fig, and spice.

Madeira

Madeira is a fortified wine made in the Madeira Islands of Portugal. These Islands off the coast of Africa have a very long winemaking history.

These range in style from dry to sweet. Dry Madeiras are typically consumed as an aperitif before dinner. Sweeter Madeiras are typically consumed after dinner as a dessert wine.

Negra Mole is the most common grape used to make Madeira, along with smaller amounts of other indigenous varietals.

The most unique thing about Madeira wine is the ‘Estufagem’ process. This process is part of their modern-day winemaking technique that is used to imitate the effects that long voyages across the sea had during the early days of exporting. To do this they essentially just leave the barrels out in the hot sun in order to speed up the aging process.

Traditional Madeira should not be confused with the popular cooking versions of Madeira that are seasoned with salt and pepper. You will be sadly disappointed.

Marsala

Marsala comes from Italy and is traditionally enjoyed as an aperitif and between courses. This wine can be made dry or sweet.

Marsala is made with all indigenous white varietals that include; Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto. These Italian winemakers use ‘Perpetuum’ winemaking system that is very similar to the Solera system.

Marsala is also a common cooking wine.

Late-Harvest Wine

Also known as Ice Wine or ‘Eiswein’; late-harvest wines are exactly what you think. Wines that are made from grapes picked late in the harvest. Riesling and Chenin Blanc are the most common varietals used for late-harvest wines.

Many harvests happen in the early fall when the grapes are at the perfect acidity and Brix (sugar content). However, if you leave the grapes on the vines, they will start to shrivel with age. There is less juice and the sugar becomes concentrated, resulting in high sugar levels in the finished wine.

As soon as the first frost comes, the grapes are picked (often in the middle of the night). Late-harvest wines can be expensive because you do not get much juice out of the frosty and shriveled up grapes.

These wines are made in France, Germany, and the United States. These wines are delicious and often used as a dessert substitute. Flavors of sugar cane, apricot, and lemon curd are common.

Noble Rot Wine

We know…the word ‘rot’ does not sound very appealing, which is why you don’t normally find it on the label. However, rot aside, these wines are delicious and the winemaker’s version of turning lemons into lemonade.

What is Noble Rot?

Noble rot is also known as ‘Grey rot’ or ‘Grey fungus’. This happens when grapes are affected by the fungus called Botrytis Cinerea. Botrytis is not a harmful or dangerous fungus. Essentially is shrivels and dries the grape up a bit, resulting in a grape that has less juice and a higher sugar concentration (like Ice Wine but not frozen).

Botrytis affects grapes that have grown in a moist environment with a lack of wind and sunshine. This often affects vines close to harvest time when the grapes are ripe and thin-skinned.

Sauternes

The most common Noble rot wine you will find are Sauternes from the Sauternais region of Graves, Bordeaux, France. This is one of the few places in the world that Botrytis frequently and almost consistently affects the grapes.

They are made with white grape; most common varietals used for Sauternes are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle (Muscat).

Passito Wines

Passito means ‘sweet’ in Italian. These wines are also known as ‘straw wine’. Passito wines like Vin Santo del Chianti and Recioto Della Valpolicella are common passito wines from Italy.

These wines are made by drying grapes on straw mats for 3-6 months. This allows the flavors and sugars to concentrate in the grape. This results in a sweet and flavorful wine that is a classic Italian dessert wine.

The long process and low yields make this wine quite expensive, but we recommend splurging at least once on a bottle just to try it. They also age very well.

Other Dessert Wines

Other sweet dessert wines are sweeter versions of popular wines. Riesling, Moscato, Gewurztraminer are the most popular sweet everyday wines.

If you are looking for a sweet Germany Riesling or Gewurztraminer, look for ‘trockenbeerenauslese’ on the label. This means sweet.

Sweet sparkling wines from California and other New World wine regions are also popular in wine stores.

Have you tried any of these dessert wines? Hungary and Austria also make dessert wines like Tokaji, although they are lesser-known and often used for local consumption.