Sweet wines can certainly be sophisticated and show finesse. Dessert wines, in particular, have historically been considered amongst the finest wines in the world. Tokaji (a Hungarian classic) has been around since the 1700s, however, this elegant and luscious wine is often overshadowed by big and brooding fortified wines, such as Port, Madeira, and Sherry, which themselves also belong to the dessert wine family.

Beyond Fortified: A Primer on Dessert Wines

by Matthew Lorman

Liquid dessert? Yes, please! We’re putting a spotlight on one of the most intriguing but often neglected categories of wine in the United States: dessert wine. When it comes to selecting a wine, classics such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc often come to mind. Dessert wines, on the other hand, are often overlooked. Why is that?

Perhaps, it’s because we’ve been taught to despise anything sweet. And when it comes to wine, there was an influx of poor quality, out-of-balance sweet wines that flooded the market in the 1980s and 1990s giving anything sweet a bad rap and putting dessert wines out of vogue. But times are changing and gone are the days of mass-produced Lambrusco, White Zinfandel, and Liebfraumilch. Well, at least, there’s a shift in balance again over the last decade and into this new one.

Sweet wines can certainly be sophisticated and show finesse. Dessert wines, in particular, have historically been considered amongst the finest wines in the world. Tokaji (a Hungarian classic) has been around since the 1700s, however, this elegant and luscious wine is often overshadowed by big and brooding fortified wines, such as Port, Madeira, and Sherry, which themselves also belong to the dessert wine family. Although the spectrum of dessert wines is very broad and deserving of a doctoral dissertation, we’re going to focus here on unfortified dessert wines.

What Is Dessert Wine?

There’s no single global definition of dessert wine. In the United States, dessert wine has a legal classification: wine that has an alcohol content greater than 14 percent but not more than 24 percent by volume. We prefer to apply a broader definition to dessert wine, and that is, a wine sweet enough to be served alongside or in place of dessert. As such, the spectrum of dessert wines varies and comes in different forms from sweet sparkling wines like demi-sec Champagne or Moscato d’Asti to still wines like late-harvest varieties and botrytis-affected styles. Read on to find out more about the intricacies that make these dessert wines unique.

How Is Dessert Wine Made?

From the slightly sweet to the delightfully luscious, there is a dessert wine out there to fit anyone’s palate. But just how do these dessert wines get to be sweet? There are three main techniques that a winemaker can implement that result in sweet wines, which are covered below.

Stopping the Fermentation: Fermentation causes the yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. The more sugar that is converted into alcohol, the drier the wine will be. If the winemaker halts fermentation (by adding sulfur dioxide or chilling the wine), there will be residual sugar causing the wine to be sweet and the alcohol level to be low. Some examples of dessert wines gaining their sweetness from incomplete fermentation include Italian Moscatos and some German Rieslings.

Adding Sussreserve: Sussreserve is unfermented grape juice that is added to a dry wine. This allows winemakers to limit the use of sulfur dioxide, while obtaining a slightly sweeter style wine. Semi-sweet Kabinnet and Spatlese German Rieslings are examples of wines that use sussreserve.

Concentrating Grape Sugars: The most luscious of unfortified dessert wines are made by concentrating natural grape sugars through dehydration and/or prolonged ripening. These include late-harvest wines, passitos, botrytis-affected wines like Sauternes, and ice wines. The method in which grapes are dehydrated to concentrate the sugar content varies depending on the region and type of wine. Here are some tactics used by winemakers:

Drying Grapes on the Vine: By harvesting later in the growing season, there is a greater opportunity to concentrate the natural sugars in the ripening grapes. The grapes of many late-harvest wines dehydrate, turning into raisins on the vine thus increasing the sugar content of the final product. Some popular grape varieties that are classically used for late-harvest wines include Riesling, Vidal Blanc, and Muscat.

Drying Grapes After Picking: Healthy harvested grapes are left to dry and dehydrate, slowly turning into raisins. The raisinated grapes add richer notes to the wine giving them nutty and date-like flavors. This is a common practice in Italy and Greece where grapes are laid out on straw mats prior to fermentation in order to raisinate. Wines made in these styles include Italian Passito wines as well as various styles of Vin Santo that are made throughout Italy and Greece.

Noble Rot: At first, you might be asking yourself why you would want to drink a wine that has anything to do with the word “rot,” no matter how noble. Relax. This type of fungus, aka Botrytis, is completely safe and responsible for some of the most amazing dessert wines in the world! The fungus takes over the grapes when they are fully ripe, puncturing the grape skins leaving tiny holes that allow the water to evaporate under the warmth of the sun. For botrytis to do its job best, the must be fully ripe before it develops and grown in regions with humid, misty mornings and sunny, dry afternoons. The botrytis effect is a concentration of sugars and flavors that results in a wine that is decadent and lusciously sweet, showcasing distinct honey, apricot, citrus zest, and dried fruit aromas. Examples of this style of wine include Sauternes, Tokaji, and some Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings (try saying that five times fast!) from Germany and Austria.

Freezing the Grapes on the Vine: Healthy grapes are left to freeze on the vine into the winter months, naturally boosting their sweetness level. The grapes are quickly harvested while they are frozen and welcomed indoors to begin pressing; this is when the magic happens. Winemakers press the frozen grapes, resulting in a concentrated syrup that is separated from the ice crystals and is then fermented. The end result is a lusciously sweet wine with refreshing acidity. This is the method for making ice wine. Popular ice wine regions include Canada and Germany, however, it is also made in Hungary, Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

What About Sweet Sparkling Wines?

An article on dessert wines would be incomplete without a nod to the beautifully sweet sparkling wines! Bubbles are not just meant for toasts at a wedding or celebrating the New Year. Sparkling wines can be a great way to start the meal, but have you ever thought to serve them alongside your dessert course? Dessert may not be an everyday occurrence, so when it arrives at the table it is a celebration in and of itself.

Sparkling dessert wines may be white, red, or rose. Just like their still counterparts, they can have varying sweetness levels--mostly demi-sec or doux when referring to Champagne. Outside the Champagne region, different styles of sparkling dessert wines are made in other parts of Europe (including Italy and Spain), the United States, Australia, and parts of South America. Some of the more notable sparkling dessert wines include:

Asti Spumante: made from the Moscato grape, this wine is fully sparkling and one of the sweetest sparkling wines in Italy.

Moscato d’Asti: similar to Asti Spumante, this wine is less effervescent while retaining the aromatic and perfumed notes the Moscato grape is known for.

Brachetto d’Aqui: this frothy sparkler is based on the Brachetto grape from the Piedmont region and can have varying levels of bubbles from the slightly effervescent frizzante to the fully sparkling spumante. Try pairing this with a dessert that includes cherries and chocolates for an unforgettable taste experience.

Sparkling dessert wines generally pair well with most types of desserts due to their lively acidity and bubbles that serve to balance the sweetness of the wine. Additionally, the bubbles help to clear the palate--getting you ready for the next bite. Try a glass of sparkling with fruit cobbler, shortbread cookies, or anything chocolate (don’t forget about the chocolate and cherry combination with Brachetto d’Aqui!). Now that we are on the topic, sweet wine makes the perfect accompaniment to a wide array of food.

What Should You Pair with Sweet Wines?

Should you decide to serve a sweet wine with food, there are two roads you can go down: complimenting or contrasting the sweetness of the wine. When serving a dessert wine with something sweet, a general rule is to ensure that the wine is sweeter than the dish it is being served with. If the food is sweeter than the wine, the wine may feel too acidic on the palate. For a simple dessert, serve an Italian Vin Santo or Recioto della Valpolicella alongside an almond biscotti. Dessert without an overly pronounced sweetness, like a fruit tart, makes a great accompaniment to a Sauternes or Tokaji.

You don’t always have to serve sweet wines with sweet foods. Get creative and don’t limit yourself; try sweet wines with your favorite charcuterie and cheeses. The sweetness and acidity in some dessert wines make a great contrast to the savory and salty notes in some meats and cheeses. For a classic flavor pairing, try Sauternes with Roquefort or foie gras.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of dessert wines. These wines are sophisticated and elegant. Now that you’ve gotten a primer on sweet wines, head to DCanter and pickup a bottle—or order online—to try and taste what you’ve been missing. Take to the streets and profess your love for this liquid gold. Snap a picture, share it with us on Instagram (@dcanterwines), and finally give dessert wines the recognition and respect they deserve!