An alternative to conventional desserts, sweet wine is the perfect ending to any meal. Dessert wines delight and enhance your meal without leaving you weighed down. While the U.S. legally defines dessert wines as having more than 14% alcohol by volume, truly any wine that is enjoyed at the end of a meal can be called dessert.
Sweet wines are produced with extra sweet wine grapes. In order to make the resulting wine sweet, fermentation is halted before the yeast converts all the natural sugar into alcohol. Exposing the wine to extra-cold temperatures or adding brandy to the wine stops this process.
Hundreds of these cork confections on the market, but let’s learn about the three most common styles. Available in select local retailers or on a well-curated restaurant wine list, dessert wines need to be in your holiday—or everyday—glass!
Sparkling Dessert Wine
In sparkling wines--like their still counterparts-- actual sweetness of the wine is determined by the amount of residual sugar remaining when the wine is bottled. Sweetness can be regulated during the dosage stage of the process or it can be inherently present from using aromatic grapes such as Muscat. The bubbles and high acidity, however, will make them seem less sweet than they really are.
The wine label will guide you when searching for sweet bubbly. Words such as demi-sec and doux mean “off-dry” and “sweet” in French; semi-secco or dolce mean “off-dry” and “sweet” in Italian, and dulce means “sweet” in Spanish. Wines with these labels will contain 3.5-5% sugar and will be amongst the sweetest bubbly available. For a sweet, yet refreshing Italian bubbly, try Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti available locally for about $23.
Richly Sweet Wine
While red dessert wine exists, the majority of richly sweet wine of any decent quality will be white. These wines are unfortified and produced using the highest quality grapes—some of which can age for decades! Late harvest wines are made from grapes allowed to ripen on the vine to the point at which they become raisinated. The resulting wines have a higher residual sugar and alcohol level. Look for Vendage Tardive for Alsatian versions and spatlese for German examples of these sweet wines.
Another sweet winemaking process encourages the grapes to develop “noble rot” or botrytis while on the vine. French Sauternes is a delicious example of this technique as is Trefethen’s Late Harvest Riesling. Lusciously sweet with honey and peach flavors, this
Napa wine can be enjoyed by the glass at Hall’s Chophouse.
Wines that are harvested and pressed while still frozen are called ice wines (eiswein). True versions of these wines are extremely rare and produced in cold regions such as Canada and Germany. Aromas and flavors will be similar to botrytized wine. Faux ice wines are a purse-friendly version and can be just as delicious and complex. Try Inniskillin’s Riesling Icewine—one of the first Canadian producers of the true style—and Elk Cove Ultima—a Willamette Valley winery that has emulated the process beautifully. Both can be enjoyed by the glass at Hall’s Chophouse.
Sweet Fortified Wine
Sweet fortified wines are made when grape brandy is added to a wine, halting fermentation, which results in higher alcohol content (about 17-20% ABV). Port wine is produced in Portugal along the Douro river from dozens of indigenous grapes. Vintage and Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) ports are sweeter versions, but for decadent treat, try Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny Port (about $215). Available from local retailers, its rich flavors and aromas of black cherry and fresh almonds with a velvety finish are worth every penny.
Hailing from Andalucia, Spain sherry wine can be made dry or sweet using the Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (PX), and Moscatel grapes. Produced using complex blending system of barrels called the solera, the most common sweet sherry is made from PX. Available at local retailers, try Bodega Lustau’s PX Sam Emilio (about $21) to discover this wine’s fig and date flavors.
Madeira is a wine produced on its namesake island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The wines undergo a heating and oxidation process – normally considered practices that would ‘ruin’ a wine—but the result is a rich fortified wine with nutty, caramel, toffee flavors. Madeira made from Bual and Malvasia grapes will be the sweetest. Try Broadbent 10 Year Malmsey Madeira to experience this wine’s true full-bodied, chocolately, yet citrus-like character.
Erlinda likes to drink her dessert before her main course. How about you? Sign up for my newsletter at www.thevinicola.com or contact me at email@example.com to learn about events, classes, and private tasting functions.