This post was inspired by one of my avid readers (Thanks to Craig!). My, off the cuff, answer to this question is a dessert wine is one which has enough sweetness to pair well with the final course of a meal, usually dessert, or be served as the dessert. Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine also notes that in America this qualification is based on Alcohol content between 14-24 %. Funny enough this would put a large number of dry red wines in to the dessert wine category as well. However for the purposes of this post I’m going to stick with the stickies (wine geek term for sweet wines)! I describe their personality as Sweet and Luscious.
For a little winemaking background, sweetness in a wine is known as Residual Sugar (or RS for short) and is usually quoted in grams per Liter (g/L) or % sugar. The name for this sweetness is derived from the amount of sugar remaining after primary fermentation (the conversion of sugar by yeast to alcohol and CO2) has completed, hence the Residual part. However that is only one way that sugar can arrive in the finished wine. Sugar can also be added in the form of grape juice, grape concentrate, or some other non-grape derived sweetening agents, depending on the laws of the country of production.
There are many famous types of dessert wines and I encourage anyone truly interested in wine to try them all to get an idea as to what is available. Sweet wine does not automatically mean cheap wine or bad wine so throw the pre-conceptions out the door as we move in to the three main styles of dessert wines.
Fortified Sweet Wines
These wines are sweet because the primary fermentation was abruptly stopped by adding a high alcohol dose to the fermentation vessel. Most yeast does not function well above 14.5% alcohol and this addition kills them instantly. This leaves the remaining sugar in the fermentation as sweetness in the finished wine. Port is likely the most well known of the Fortified Sweet Wines and with alcohols around 19% they are very distinctive. True Port comes from the country of Portugal although there are many good producers of Port-style wines elsewhere in the world. Other than dessert, Port and Port-style wines pair well with strong cheeses like Roquefort, figs and fig cakes, as well as almonds and Brazil nuts for Tawny styles of ports. Other fortified sweet wines include certain types of Sherries, Madeiras, Rutherglen Muscats, and Vin Doux Naturels.
When grapes are attacked by a fungus called Botrytis (Pronounced Bo-try-tus) it can lead to one of two outcomes; a nasty rotten mess or beautiful sweet wines. The fungus, when headed the more positive of the two ways, dehydrates the grapes while still on the vine leading to a concentration of sugars, acids, and flavors. Botrytis also gives additional complexity to the wines through flavors such as orange marmalade, mushrooms, and honey. My favorite Botrytized wines come from Sauternes, France where the three varieties; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle turn into liquid gold with intense aromatics and crisp finishes. These wines pair well with strong flavored foods such as asparagus, fois gras, truffles, strong cheeses, and dried fruits. Other notable Botrytized wines are Tokaj from Hungary (the oldest of the Botrytized wines), and the Ausleses, Beerenausleses and Trokenbeerenausleses from Germany, the Rheingau region specifically.
These types of wines are produced when the grapes freeze on the vine and are then harvested and pressed while still frozen leaving much of the natural water content at ice in the skins and creating a very pure fruit flavored, almost syrup-like wine, typically bottled in small 375mL bottles. While Germany pioneered this style, which is called Eiswein, my favorites come from the Niagara region of Canada. Typically produced from Riesling or Vidal Blanc, these wines are very enjoyable in small amounts and can be easily paired with cheese and dried fruits as well as desserts. In rare years a Cabernet Franc Ice Wine can be produced and is also worth the search if you’re interested. Austria also produces Ice Wines from both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, although the latter is harder to find.
Dessert wines are a fun family of wines that are fairly easy to find and usually enjoyed by a wide variety of people even if they are not avid wine drinkers. Also, there are some really great bargains to be found because dessert wines are not usually as sought after as their less sweet cousins. However as with all high alcohol or intensely flavored foods or drinks, a little bit of dessert wine goes a long way so be sure and have a few friends to share in the discovery if you are going to open several bottles to compare. It makes a fun wine tasting night to have some select foods and different sweet wines to discover your own favorite pairings. To find dessert wines I’ve written tasting notes for, look for wines labeled Sweet and Luscious.