Dessert wines serve beautifully alongside a well-made dessert, or they stand well alone at the end of a meal. These high-sugar wines are tremendously popular, even among non-wine drinkers. Many types of dessert wines exist from around the world, each with different flavor characteristics and price ranges.
What are Dessert Wines?
By definition, a dessert wine is a wine that has a higher sugar content (called residual sugar) than normal table wines. A dry wine is one that has less than 1 percent residual sugar-a dessert wine, by comparison, usually has anywhere from 3 percent to 28 percent. There are many types of dessert wines, just like there are table wines. They can be-and are-made from many different varietals. Some can be very costly. Chateau D'Yquem from France can fetch anywhere from $200 to $2000 for a HALF bottle.
Late Harvest Wines
The most common dessert wine is a late harvest. This simply means the winery will leave the fruit on the vine so it over-ripens (called raisining) so that the sugar level (called brix) goes way up and the juice content goes way down. As they sit on the vine, sometimes a rot can set in called Botrytis (also called the noble rot) that adds and extra character to the grapes. What remains are grapes with concentrated, sweet juice. The juice is fermented, but there is so much sugar that the yeast in the fermentation process can't eat all the sugar and dies off when the alcohol gets to a certain point. The result are high sugar, low-alcohol wines with a deliciously sweet flavor. These wines-as with most sweet wines-are sold in half-bottles because they are so rich. Because there is less juice to ferment, these half-bottles can cost the same or more than normal 750 mL of table wine.
Another dessert wine that people tend to confuse with late harvest is Port. Port is very popular, and has been around for a long time. Port is a fortified wine, meaning it has a spirit of some sort (usually brandy) added. This ups the alcohol content to around 18 percent in spite of the high brix.
Port can be made from any grape. Historically, the true Ports come from Spain and Portugal from grape varieties there. Shipped into England by English companies, many ports have English names: Smith-Woodhouse, Wares, Cockburns, etc. These guys can age a long time and cost a pretty penny. The nice thing about opening a Port is that you do not have to consume it like you do wine…it's fortified, thus it will last a lot longer after being opened.
Types of Port
There are mainly two types of Port: Tawny and Ruby. Tawny Port is produced in a solera process, meaning that the wine evaporates in the barrel and oxidizes. This process gives the wine a golden/brown color and adds a "nutty" characteristic. Ruby Port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation it is aged for three years inside large oak vats to prevent excessive oxidation, preserving the rich red color and bright, fruity flavors.
Ice wines are a fun treat, but another costly one. Ice wines are made from grapes picked on the vine when iced over during the first frosts of autumn. Like in late harvest wines, the grapes are left on the vine to ripen and raisin. Then the winemaker waits for a frost to come and cover the grapes before harvesting them. Germany and Canada are the biggest producers of Ice Wines. The grapes are then shipped back to the winery and crushed right away. The water molecules in the grape are frozen, and what is left is pure nectar concentrate. It takes a lot of grapes to get juice, so this wine is very expensive.
These wines tend to be very sweet and pour like syrup. They are labeled "liquid gold" because of their color and cost. The grapes that are used in this wine tend to be Vidal and Riesling.
Madeira, made on the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal, can age as long as good Port. The winemakers subject the wine to a high temperature for a period of several months in buildings called estufas. This process is meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage of the aging barrels through tropical climates. Madeira was originally unfortified, but the addition of spirits increased its ability to survive long voyages. These wines have a very distinctive hazelnut/floral aroma to them. They age well, and frequently taste best when they have been aged for 50 to 100 years.
Alone or with Dessert?
One misconception about dessert wines is that you need dessert to go with them. While there are some amazing dessert pairings to go with these wines, the wine itself is a good dessert. Wines offer nuances and delicate flavors and eating a sweet, decadent dessert could mask them. Simple pairings do best though, such as a cheesecake with a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a good Port with warm chocolate torte, or Ice Wine with homemade vanilla ice cream. Try some out on your own, but be ready for a sugar "high" for the rest of the evening!
Try dessert wines. Many people discount anything sweet and refuse to try them or have them after dinner. Next time you're out wine tasting in wine country, ask if they make a sweet wine and try it. When you go to dinner to a nice restaurant next don't be afraid to try a sweet wine after dinner. Ask your server for recommendations. Although most dessert wines are listed here, there are other types to try as well. Enjoy your journey, and let the child inside out and satisfy your sweet tooth!