Dessert Wine Basics: A Sweet Taste of the Different Types

Published November 29, 2021
Dessert wine and biscuits

There's more than one way to satisfy your sugar craving post meal. Whether you are looking for a pairing for your crème brûlée, or you prefer to sip your dessert, with hundreds of different dessert wines from around the world, you can find a style that is perfect for any occasion.

Dessert Wine Defined

From sparkling to red to fortified, dessert wines have a range of sweetness and alcohol content and can be made from a variety of grapes using different techniques. They do, however, contain more sugar than other wines, generally 120g/Liter or considerably more. With such a range, they can be bright, bubbly additions to your slice of chocolate cake, or they can be heavy hitter syrupy reds, meant for sipping to cap off a dinner party.

From Vine to Glass

Winemakers rely on numerous techniques in both the vineyard and the winery to achieve the desired characteristics for a particular dessert wine.

Dessert wine overlooking a vineyard

Late Harvest

Just as you might expect, this technique lets the grapes linger on the vine, allowing them to ripen to their fullest extent, producing higher levels of sugar. Some are left to turn to raisins, where the dehydration concentrates the sugar and flavor.

Botrytis or Noble Rot

A fuzzy grey fungus that can enter the vineyard under the right autumn conditions, Botrytis cinerea, grows on the outside of clusters and dehydrates the grape, intensifying the sugars and flavors. While it doesn't necessarily sound desirable, it creates unique and complex characteristics in wine with flavor profiles of marmalade, mushroom, and honey.

Fortification

Fortifying wines is a centuries old method where a spirit, often distilled grape brandy, is added to the wine. This increases the alcohol and stops the fermentation, so the wine retains residual sugar, resulting in a very sweet wine with an alcohol content between 15% -20%.

Classic Styles

There are many types of sweet wine from different regions around the world. The following are key styles to become familiar with.

Moscato d'Asti

From Piedmont, in northwest Italy, moscato d'Asti is pleasantly sweet and perfumed with delicate bubbles to match. Aromas of peach and Meyer lemon make this the ballerina of dessert wines. A classic DOCG wine classification, it is an unfortified sweet wine made from moscato bianco, also known as muscat blanc à petits grains.

Man pouring sparkling wine at a table outdoors

Eiswein

This naturally produced sweet wine is traditionally from Germany and is most commonly made from Riesling. The grapes are left to hang on the vine well into the cold temperatures. Picked when frozen, the juices are highly concentrated, creating a wine that has exceptional balance in sweetness and acidity.

Tokaji Aszu

Tokaji is a region in northern Hungary that has long been producing a sweet wine, primarily made from the native grape, furmint. This classic wine is made from grapes that have developed noble rot. With concentrated flavors and skin contact, Tokaji aszu is an orange-hued wine with notes of ginger and beeswax, balanced acidity, and a beautiful texture.

Sauternes

This wine region in southern Bordeaux creates a full-bodied sweetened white wine from semillon and sauvignon blanc that have been affected by noble rot. With notes of honeyed stone fruit, marmalade, and butterscotch, this complex wine can age for years.

Passito

Passito is an Italian style made from naturally dried grapes which concentrate both the sugar and alcohol. The grapes are left on the vine to shrivel up and then picked and laid out on straw mats to further dehydrate, like raisins. While this can be done with different varietals, a couple popular wines made using this technique are Recioto Della Valpolicella and Moscato di Pantelleria.

Sherry

A fortified wine from the region of Jerez, in Spain, sherry is primarily made from the palomino grape. Sherry styles range from dry to sweet, both are high in alcohol and have defining nutty flavors of almond, Brazil nut, jackfruit, and saline due to intentional exposure to oxygen.

Sherry wine toast at foreground holding by hands and bottles at background

Port

This fortified red wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal can be made from both red and white regional grapes. Full-bodied, high in alcohol, and meant to be sipped, port typically has a rich flavor profile of dried cherry, chocolate, raisin, cinnamon and plum. It can be aged for decades.

Pour a Glass

Ready to find a dessert wine for your next dinner party, or simply sip on something sweet? Dive into this luscious world and choose a wine based on what you're eating, the weather, or your preferred flavor profile.

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Dessert Wine Basics: A Sweet Taste of the Different Types