What is a Dessert Wine?


A dessert wine is a term that many people hear every now and then. However, people who do not know much about wines tend to get a little confused when they hear the term ‘dessert wine’. They often wonder what wine has to do with an after-dinner treat. Well, to answer that, a dessert wine is basically a sweet wine that is served with dessert. It is also sometimes referred to as pudding wines.

When it comes to the principles for the harmony of food and wine, one of the most important to note is that the meal should never be sweeter than wine. Therefore, the wine should be at least as sweet as the food or dessert. And, if you drink a dry or non-sweet wine while eating a sweet dessert, the wine you are drinking will have a very sour taste.

If you want to know more about dessert wine, then read on as we’re going to explain further what it is, how it becomes sweet, and the different dessert wines that you can try.

How are Wines Get to Be So Sweet to Match with Desserts?

baked pastry served with wine
If you haven’t tried dessert wines yet, then you might be thinking about how come they are sweet, unlike other types of wine, which are usually bitter in taste. Well, there are basically three methods on how they are made sweet.

The most popular and straightforward method is by making them out of very ripe or sometimes overripe grapes, which are harvested at a very late stage. The grapes also form sugar in such a high degree that they still show a high degree of sweetness even after being fermented to wine.

When vintners want to make particularly high-quality dessert wines, then they go a step further. This is by hoping for an infestation of their vines by what they call noble rot. This happens when the skin of the grapes become permeable, and the water evaporates from them. This causes all other ingredients, including the aroma, the acid, and the sweetness, to become stronger.

There’s also a different way of concentrating the ingredients and sugars in the grapes, which are used in rare ice wines. What they do is they leave grapes hanging on the vine until very late in the year, with vintners hoping for an early winter. Once the temperatures drop to 19°F or lower, the frozen grapes will be harvested and quickly squeezed out. Since the water in the grapes is frozen, it will be retained in the grapes. The little juice that can be pressed out f the frozen grapes contain highly concentrated sugar, acid, and aroma.

There are also liqueur wines, in which fermentation of the sweet grapes is interrupted by adding alcohol. This results in a sweet wine that is high in alcohol content. They are called fortified wines.

Dessert wines, aside from being perfect pairs for sweet desserts, they are also great to pair with spicy cheese. It’s because the fruity sweetness of the wine can help cut the salty flavor of the cheese.

Different Types of Dessert Wines You Can Try

glasses of Port wine
To further understand dessert wines, we are giving you the different types that you can try matching with your favorite sweet treats.

1. Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are one of the most historically significant categories of wine. They are made by adding grape spirit or brandy to wine either during or after fermentation. This depends if the winemaker wants the finished wine to be sweet or dry. If the wine is fortified before fermentation is completed, the wine will turn out to be sweet because there will still be sugar left in the wine.

This technique started during the Age of Exploration. It was during the time when voyagers need to strengthen their wines to be able to withstand long ocean voyages. This is the reason why most fortified wines today are ageable. And whether fortified wines are dry or sweet, they have one thing in common, which is they contain high alcohol.
bottles of Sherry wine
Here are some of the fortified wines you can try:

  • Sherry

    Sherry is one of the coolest dessert wines in the world. However, many wine lovers steer clear of this wine because it can be a little intimidating. It’s because this type of dessert wine is made in several different styles in the Spanish region of Jerez. It means that this wine has many personalities, unlike other wines that do not have a single character.

    When making Sherry, three grapes can be used, such as Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez or PX, and Moscatel. Sherry is also branded by its unique solera aging system, where old barrels of Sherry are topped up with younger wines from the system. Sherry can be confusing at first, but to make it easier, you can categorize it in two ways, which are dry versus sweet. Sweet Sherry wines include Cream, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez, and all of them have significant sweetness and fig-like flavors.

  • Port

    Port is also like Sherry, which comes in different styles. But the difference is it is always sweet and typically a red wine. Port came from Portugal’s Douro River Valley and is made using local grapes called Touriga Nacional, together with other local supporting grapes.

    If you want a sweet dessert wine that has fresh red fruit flavors, then you must try Ruby Ports. This wine carries a deep ruby-red color and has chocolate and berry flavors. If you want nuttier styles of dessert wine, then Tawny Port is perfect for you. It is oxidatively aged and has dried fruit, nut, and toffee flavors.

  • Madeira

    Madeira wines are made from four core grapes, which are Sercial, Bual, Verdelho, and Malmsey. It ranges from drier to sweeter, and when it’s labeled Rainwater, it is generally a blend of medium sweetness. Madeira wine is characterized by tastes of dried and cooked fruit, nuts, honey, toffee, and much more. It can also last for centuries and can be kept open and out of the fridge.

  • Marsala

    Marsala wine is thought of as a simple wine used for cooking. But did you know that it has a long history, which sits among the ranks of the world’s most popular fortified dessert wines which are Sherry, Port, and Madeira? Hence, making it one of the best dessert wines that you can try, too.

  • Rutherglen Muscat

    This type of dessert wine is made from Muscat Rouge a Petits Grains, which is a reddish-skinned white grape. It is left on the vine to gain sugar throughout the harvest season. It is fortified during fermentation, that’s why much of its sugar remains in the wine. It is then aged oxidatively in barrel, resulting in a rich, brown, and sweet wine that has intense flavors of raisins, burnt caramel, prunes, coffee, and more.

2. Late-Harvested or Noble Rot Wines

noble-rot grapes on a vine
As mentioned earlier, noble rot wines are those wines created from grapes that are left on the vine until the end of the harvest season. This method allows them to get super-ripe and gain lots of sugar. It is a version of late-harvest wine, but the healthy grapes are attacked by Botrytis cinerea, which is a type of fungus that punctures grape skins to dehydrate them, creating concentrated flavors, sugar, and acidity in grapes.

Here are some of the different noble-rot dessert wines that you can try:

  • Riesling

    Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes in the world. It is grown all over the world, but its sweet-wine home is in Germany. Sweet Riesling wine range from off-dry to late-harvested versions with more concentration. Riesling is also being produced in Austria using the Pradikat system. This type of dessert wine is low in alcohol.

  • Sauternes

    This dessert wine is considered to be the world’s greatest sweet wine. And it is also one of history’s most sought-after and expensive sweet wines. When it comes to noble-rot wines, Sauternes is the gold standard, being made from the easily-attacked Semillon grape, together with Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc. Even though the purple fuzz-covered grapes may seem disgusting, they transform into a lusciously sweet dessert wine that is aged in oak before release.

  • Tokaji

    Tokaji is a dessert wine that comes from Hungary. It is made from the local Furmint grape, which is high in acid and very susceptible to botrytis, too. These wines are uber sweet and are barrel-aged, as well. They are also low in alcohol. One variety of this is the Tokaji Esszencia, which is made only from the syrupy free-run juice that comes from the aszu grapes. It is probably the sweetest wine in the world, but it is difficult to find, too. It can age for more than a century and is usually sold by the teaspoonful.

3. Dried Grape Wines

Drying grapes is a traditional technique done in Italy, Greece, and Austria. Dried grape wines are made by drying health grapes after harvesting them. Most of the time, they are hanged from rafters or placed on straw mats. This method dehydrates the grapes, which concentrates the remaining sugar and flavors, creating a sweet wine with clean flavors.

Here are some of the dried grape dessert wines you can try:

  • Vin Santo Del Chianti

    This dessert wine is also known as the holy wine. It can be found in some regions of Italy. It is made from Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia grapes, which are hung in whole bunches from rafters. This wine is barrel-aged in small oak or chestnut barrels between three and eight years. It is sweet with dried fruits and raisin flavors.

  • Recioto Della Valpolicella

    This one is a sweet red wine that is made from dried Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella grapes. These grapes are traditionally dried on straw mats or in lofts, ensuring that air circulates through the grapes during the drying process to avoid molds from forming. This type of dessert wine is characterized by dried berry and raisin, along with vanilla and chocolate.

These are some of the different types of dessert wines and how they are made. These wines can be a dessert themselves, but bakery sweets can make a good match. Just remember the general rule that the wine should be sweeter than the food it is served with. We hope the information we shared was able to give you more knowledge about what a dessert wine is.

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