Dessert Wines - Pick Your Favorite Dessert

Making dessert style wines is actually quite difficult. It's not just about using the right grape varietals, but winemakers also need the skills to know with is the exact harvest timing & winemaking conditions. It covers everything from the condition of the grapes on the vine, as well as the right timing to stop fermentation of wines, and how to do so in the right fashion for the wine style. 

This laborious process results in the often high prices that come with dessert wines. 

History of Dessert Wines

Sweet wines used to rule the wine world, and it's not difficult to see why. Back when storage methods were very rudimentary, sweet wines were the most stable and easiest to keep. The first mention of sweet wines comes from 700 BC, in the form of a poem ‘The Works and Day’s' by Greek poet Hesiod, describing a sweet wine from Cyprus, that was made in the Passito style similar to today's modern version of Italian Vin Santo.

Some popular moments in history include that Cleopatra's favorite drink was known to be a sweet style Muscat of Alexandria, named after the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

All the way up til the 1800 & 1900s, where the msot highly prized & revered wines in the world were that of the exotic and enchanting wines of Tokjai and the delicious delicacy and purity of Mosel Rieslings to the rich unctuous wines of Sauternes. It was only in the 1970s where advances in refridgeration & storage sparked a shift towards dry wines, accelerated by wine critics who positioned dry wines as "superior".

Types of Dessert Wines

dessert wines

Defining dessert wines is slightly vague; there's no fixed definition and there is a range of sweetness & body of these wines. The term refers broadly to sweet wines that are typically drank at the end of a meal. They all come from sweet grapes that have fermentation stopped early, before sugars are fully converted into alcohol. This can be done in various ways, all with the goal of killing yeast. Popular ones include cooling the wine to a temperature that yeast can no longer survive, or by raising the alcohol level to around 17% to 22% with the addition of neutral spirits like brandy, where the yeast poisons itself & dies off.

The guide below categorises the hundreds of different styles of dessert wines into 5 major groups. 

Sparkling Dessert Wine

Famous White Styles: Moscato d'Asti

Famous Red Styles: Brachetto d'Acqui, Lambrusco

Carbonation & acidity of sparkling wines result in it often tasting less sweet than it actually is. On the flip side, some aromatic grapes are more perfuned, making it taste sweeter than it actually is.

A classic example of this is a Moscato d'Asti, which has good acidity & bubbles to balance out the aromatics & sweet, often with a clean mineral finish. These would mostly come from Italy, specifically Piedmont.

Lambrusco & Brachetto d'Acqui are popular red sparkling wines from Italy, Emilia-Romagna & Piedmont respectively. Lambrusco would have higher tannins, with notes of strawberry & blueberry. Brachetto would usually be lighter in alcohol, with floral aromatics & a candied strawberry note.  

Typically, you would want to look out for certain key words that help you identify a sweet sparkling wine. 

 Level of Sweetness Italian French
Off Dry Semi Secco Demi-Sec
Semi Sweet
Amabile
Moelleux
Sweet Dolce / Dulce Doux

 

This would help you identify the sweetness in other sparkling wines that don't have a specific style, such as Moscato d'Asti or Asti Spumante.

Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine

White varietals: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Moscato

Red varietals: Schiava, Freisa

Many sweet styles of aromatic grapes sit here, and often pair well with spicy foods like Indian or Southeast Asian cuisines. These wines usually still have dominant fruit & floral flavours, rather than the rich ones which often have more dominant honey or vanilla notes.

Usually, these wines are best enjoyed young, with some exceptions of course, like German or Austrian Riesling. Do notes that most of these aromatic grapes are made in both dry & sweet styles, so look out for a sweet style as a dessert wine.

Popular white varieties include:

  • Gewürztraminer, which is known for lychee & rose petal aromas. It's commonly found in French Alsace, Italian Alto Adige, and more recently, US California & New Zealand
  • Riesling, which is known for a unique note of petroleum, with high acidity that balances out the sweet taste. Most sweet styles are from Germany, and look out for the Spatlese style indication

Others include grape varietals such as Chenin Blanc, Viognier & Müller-Thurgau, although they are often made as a dry style.

Popular red varieties include:

  • Schiava, from Alto-Adige Italy, which is a refreshing aromatic red that is usually not very sweet, with notes of sweet raspberry & cotton candy. It does not have much acidity or tannin, and is rather light bodied, like a Pinot Noir
  • Freisa, from Piedmont Italy, is related to Nebbiolo, but has lighter tannins & floral cherry notes

Richly Sweet Dessert Wine

This is where it gets interesting for dessert wines, and is usually what most people think of when it comes to quality dessert wines. Due to their sweetness, most people are satisfied with a small serve of wines from this category.

There are a couple of different methods that these wines are achieved, but the general approach is to maximise the concentration of sugar in the grapes, 

Late Harvest Style

Famous White Styles: South African Vin de Constance, German Spätlese, French Vendage Tardive, American/Canadian Vidal Blanc

Famous Red Styles: Late Harvest Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Malbec and Petite Sirah, usually from America

Late harvest is as literal as it gets. Grapes are picked when they are overripe, which allows the grapes to dehydrate naturally on the vine, resulting in concentrated sweetness. While any grape can theoretically be used, there are certain grapes that complement this style more, such as Chenin Blanc, Semillon, and Riesling, as they naturally have a higher sugar content & acidity. 

Noble Rot Style

Famous Wine Styles: French Sauternais, Hungarian Tokaji, Austrian/German Auslese, Beerenauslese & Trockenbeerenauslese

While it sounds off putting, noble rot is interesting as it adds unique flavors of saffron, ginger & honey to sweet wines. It's usually a unique style to places where the microclimates promote the growth of Botrytis cinerea that eats at the grapes, which are usually left out in a late harvest style fashion. Typically, it requires cool climates with morning fog, which promote the growth of these spores. 

These are done with various grape varietals, based on the region that they come from. The French use Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, while Hungarians use Furmint, and Germans usually use Riesling.

Passito (Straw Mat) Style

Famous White Styles: Italian (Trebbiano, Malvasia) & Greek (Assyrtiko) Vin Santo, Italian (Muscat or Erbaluce) Passito, German Strohwien, Austrian Schilfwein, French Jura (Chardonnay, Savagnin) Vin de Paille

Famous Red Styles: Italian Recioto della Valpolicella

Similar in objectives to late harvest, but done after harvesting, the grapes are laid out to raisinate before winemaking. This further concentrates the grapes in comparison to late harvest styles, as winemakers can control the environment better to maximise concentration. The grapes are typically laid out in a shed with good air circulation, or even laid out in the sun. This process is very labour intensive, as winemakers need to make sure that the grapes are not damaged or succumb to rot, as one such grape can ruin the whole bunch.

Ice Wine (Eiswein) Style

Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland

There are 2 conditions that define ice wine,

  1. The vineyard has to freeze over, which does not always happen
  2. The grapes must be harvested & pressed while still frozen

These near impossible conditions result in the rarity of ice wine in general. albeit not impossible. Canada is the largest producer of ice wine in the world, and you can also find it in the coolest regions of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. 

Typically, they are made of Riesling or Vidal grapes, but Cabernet Franc has also been used. They would have similarities with noble rot wine, and would be honeyed with a rich sweetness.

Fortified Wine

Fortified wine takes a different approach to dessert wines. They can either be dry or sweet, but because of the deep complexity to their profile, as well as the weight of the alcohol & body, it's usually treated as a post dinner drink.

They are made by adding grape brandy to a wine, and can often be barrel aged for years. They tend to have a much longer shelf life once opened.

Common styles include Port, Madeira & Sherry. Read up more in our article focusing on fortified wines!

  • Port is from Porto, along the Duoro river, and uses traditional Portugese grapes. There are various wine styles, based on how long it's aged. 
  • Sherry comes from Andalusia, Spain, where it's made of Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. Similary, there are various styles.
  • Madeira is unique as it undergoes a heating & oxidation process - techniques which normally ruin a wine. 
  • Vin Doux Naturel are Port style wines that can be made in various regions or in Portugal using non-native grapes.
Tags: Wine 101