Dessert Wines

In past entries we've explored fortified wines that are just one major category of dessert wines. While the list of dessert wines is too expansive to cover in one posting, we'll touch briefly on the categories of sparkling wines and the various types of Late Harvest wines.

As discussed in prior posting, sparkling wines can range from dry to sweet. Typically a wine labeled "Dry" will have little to no residual sugar (RS). But that's not true in sparkling wines. Sparkling wines on the sweeter side are called:

  • Extra Dry has 12-20% residual sugar
  • Dry has 17-35% residual sugar
  • Demi Sec will have 35-50% residual sugar
  • Doux (meaning 'sweet' in French) will have greater than 50% residual sugar

A few of the sweeter sparkling wines include Moscato d'Asti, Asti Spumante, Sparkling Gewürztraminer, Demi Sec, and Sparkling Rosé. Sparkling wines are fun and festive and will go well with most dessert courses.

The other major category of dessert wines is Late Harvest wines.  These wines can be broken down by the following production methods:

  • Late Harvest of the Grapes: Simply put, the longer the grapes stays on the vine the more ripe they become and the more natural sugar they produce. During the fermentation process, the yeast is not able to convert all the natural sugar to alcohol thus resulting in a sweeter wine. Nearly any grape varietal can be used to produce a Late Harvest dessert wine. These tend to be very rich and fruity with notes of honey.
  • Using Dried Grapes: A dried grape, or raisin, just tastes sweeter than a grape because the sugar is not diluted in water. Thus, using dried grapes can result in more sugar, less water. Here again, the yeast used to ferment the wine doesn't consume all the sugar before dying off resulting in a sweet wine. Grapes may be dried on the vine, on straw mats or while hanging on racks.
    • Greek Straw Wines
      • Vinsanto is made with high-acid white Assyrtiko grapes
      • Samos is a sweet wine made from Muscat grapes
      • Commandaria is a sweet wine from the Mavro grape
    • German Strohwein/Austrian Schilfwein - These are sweet wines made from Muscat and Zweigelt grapes in Austria and Germany.
    • French Vin de Paille - From the Jura region of France, these wines are produced using Chardonnay and the ancient white wine grape Savagnin.
    • Italian Passito - These wines are made with several different kinds of grapes, both white and red, but notably from the Moscato grape. These have a fruity bouquet and flavors of apricot and raisins.
    • Vin Santo - From Italy, this wine is produced from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. Includes nutty and date-like flavors. Commonly served with biscotti that may be dipped in the wine or eaten separately.
  • Noble Rot:  The awful sounding name of this method occurs naturally in climates where there are cool damp mornings and warm dry afternoons.  This environment is where naturally occurring fungus, Botrytis, causes the grapes to shrivel on the vine, losing much of the water and leaving behind the extra concentrated sweet fruit. The 'rot' is entirely harmless and results in a highly sought-after style of wine. In Bordeaux, France, the Sauternes region is famous for its Noble Rot wines produced mostly from the Semillon grape.
  • Ice Wine: This method allows the grapes to freeze on the vine, converting all the water within the grape to ice. When the grapes are immediately picked and crushed, the ice remains behind and only the sugary juice of the grape is collected. Only a fraction of this sweet juice is converted to alcohol during the fermentation process, thus creating a sweet wine.

So whether it is a fortified wine, a sparkling wine or a Late Harvest wine, there are many choices for dessert wines. A general rule for a dessert wine is that it should be sweeter than the food being served and slightly chilled. So keep these options in mind when choosing a dessert wine to go with your favorite dessert options.  But, as always, drink what you like and enjoy! Cheers!