Dessert wines are sweet wines that are generally served after a meal with a dessert. Surprisingly, they don’t get enough recognition among wine lovers.
Some debate that this is due to the rebellion against mass produced sweet wines like White Zinfandel and Blue Nun. As a result, the dry wines got a ton more popular, while the demand for sweeter ones has gradually declined.
The last thing we want is for the dessert wine to be forgotten. They are made to enhance everyone’s after dinner experience. Of course, some can also be enjoyed on their own, but nothing can match the act of combining the wine with a dessert that often leads to some mind blowing combos.
While the dessert wine category isn’t the most popular, it’s quite broad, with a lot of specific categories within, ranging from less to more sweet, young to aged-for-decades, light to boozy. Let’s take a look at the most notable dessert wines of the world.
Fortified wines are often defined as their own category, but they are also considered a branch of dessert wines. They are likely the most historically significant. Fortified wines are made by adding brandy to wine during or after fermentation, depending on whether the winemaker wants the final product to be sweet or dry.
If a wine is fortified prior to the end of the fermentation process, it will be sweet due to all the sugar left in the beverage, and if it’s fortified after the fermentation process has been finished, it will be dry.
The technique was developed around the 15th century, during the Age of Exploration. The wine had to be strengthened to withstand long ocean voyages, which could last months, if not years. The English loved the style so much, they just couldn’t let the process go.
Sherry is considered one of the most versatile wines of the world, but it can be a notch too intimidating, which is why a fair number of wine lovers steer clear of it. That’s because the wine is made in several different styles and has many personalities.
Three grapes may be used to make Sherry, Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. The aging process is also a little odd. The solera aging system, in which older barrels are essentially topped up with a younger wine as the wine is being bottled from the oldest barrel, leading to a blend of wines from every single vintage.
There is an easy way to categorize all the various kinds of Sherry ... dry vs sweet and oxidative vs non-oxidative. Flor and Manzanilla, which are dry and non-oxidative, are protected by a layer of yeast and have interesting flavours of almond, citrus and saline, should be consumed young. Oloroso, which is dry and oxidative, develops scents of coffee, caramel and vanilla, making it taste sweet despite the absence of sugar. Amontillado and Palo Cortado, which are dry and semi-oxidative. Finally, there are Cream, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel, which are the sweet, oxidative styles which age very well.
Similar to Sherry, Port comes in many styles. However, unlike Sherry, Port is generally a red wine and always sweet, which makes it one of the most popular dessert wines. Born in Portugal’s Douro River Valley, it’s made with the local Touriga Nacional grape variety, along with a few supporting grapes.
Historically, it’s been vinified in the Douro Valley and aged downriver in Vila Nova de Gaia. Since then, many winemakers chose to age it in the Douro as well.
If you are looking for a sweet dessert wine, your best bet would be finding Ruby Port, a wine that carries a deep-red colour and flavours of berry and chocolate. LBV (late bottled vintage) and vintage ports fall into the category as well, with much higher complexity and concentration. Tawny Port is a nuttier style port with dried fruit, toffee and nut flavours.
Madeira is the most ageable of all wines.
Madeira is made of four main grapes, Sercial, Bual, Verdelho and Malmsey and ranges from dry to sweet. The key tasting notes of a good Madeira are dried fruit, honey, nuts, toffee and smoke, topped up with sky high acidity. A good fraction of the oldest wine bottles around the globe is Madeiras, which can last for hundreds of years and stay open pretty much indefinitely.
A lot of people know Marsala as a cooking wine. However, it’s much more than that, sitting among the world’s top fortified wines like Port, Madeira and Sherry. The wine’s name is simply the name of the region where it’s produced, in the city of Marsala, Sicily.
Generally made from white grapes, although ruby version does exist, the best Marsala is made from the Grillo grape that’s blended with Cataratto and Inzolia. Its styles range from dry to sweet, depending on how it’s been fortified. The oxidative aging enriches Marsala with complex nutty, honeyed and dried fruit flavours.
Rutherglen Muscat is a historically significant wine of the Australian landscape, even though it may not be the first wine on the tip of your tongue. Many of the wine producers are in their fourth to the fifth generation of winemaking!
The grape to make the wine is called Muscat Rouge a Petits Grains ,a red skinned white grape that’s left on the vine so it becomes more sugary throughout the entire harvest season. Like other sweet dessert wines, Rutherglen Muscat is fortified during fermentation and aged oxidatively in a barrel.
The result is a rich and lusciously sweet dessert wine with strong flavours of prunes, raisins, coffee, caramel and toasted nuts. The youngest Rutherglen Muscats are usually aged for at least five years, with the best ones being decades old!
Riesling is one of the most popular and versatile white grapes in the world. Despite having a bad rep for mass production of cheap and sweet wine, Riesling is capable of making some of the highest quality lusciously sweet and bone dry, almost enamel stripping wines, plus everything in between.
Riesling is grown all over the world, but its true home is in Germany, where some of the best and most expensive wines are produced. The country has what’s called a Pradikat system, that classifies each wine on the amount of sugar in grapes at harvest.
The wines range from Kabinett and Spatlese, perceptible sweet and fresh, with delicate fruit flavours, to Auslese, late-harvested grapes, with rich fruit flavours and full-bodied, to Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, which are lusciously sweet, with honeyed richness. There is also Eiswein (which is simply translated as “ice wine”), which is made from frozen grapes and has cleaner fruit flavour.
Besides Germany, we have Austria that produced the finest dry Riesling and Canada that’s famous for its delicious ice wines. As a rule of thumb, Riesling is low in alcohol, with ABV increasing as the years go by.
Of course, there are many other dessert wines such as Banyuls, Sauternes, Tokaji, Vin Santo Del Chianti and Recioto Della Valpolicella.
If you’d like to try something new, buy dessert wine at the ZYN liquor store in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, or shop online at ZYN.ca!