Dessert wines are sweet, luscious after-dinner drinks that linger on your palate more deliciously than any mousse, cake or tart. Affectionately known as ‘stickies,’ these sweet wines are a sensational accompaniment to fruit desserts and are perfect with blue or soft cheeses.
Alternatively, they can stand alone as a replacement for dessert at the end of a meal.
Fermented in the same manner as conventional white wines, dessert wines tend to be intensely flavoured, deeply gold in colour with bouquets of dried apricots, a rich sweet flavour and a sharp acid finish.
The types of desserts that a dessert wine can go with are limitless, but the general rule is for the dessert wine to be sweeter than the dessert to avoid having the food overpower the wine.
Here's a quick overview of three of our favourite fortified and dessert wine styles.
Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine
Lightly sweet dessert wines are the ultimate dessert wine for fruit-based and vanilla-driven desserts. These wines are generally refreshingly sweet and perfect for a hot day. When it comes to food, these wines are well matched to spicy foods like Indian and Asian cuisine. Some of the lightly sweet wines on the market today include Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Chenin Blanc. These wines are usually best served cold and should be enjoyed at their freshest, although some, such as Riesling, age well.
Richly Sweet Dessert Wine
Richly sweet wines are made with the highest quality grapes in an unfortified style and can age 50 years or more. This is because their sweetness and acidity preserve their fresh flavour. There are several ways to produce richly sweet dessert wines:
Late Harvest: Late harvest means precisely that. Often described as ‘liquid sunshine’ these wines are traditionally made from grapes that are left on the vines until the end of the harvest so that they ripen to their fullest before naturally dehydrating. The result is a wine that has a higher residual sugar (or alcohol, depending on how long it is left to ferment).Being late harvest generally indicated a sweeter dessert wine such as late harvest Riesling, Pinot Gris or Semillon. Semillon is the favourite grape used in dessert wines because its thinner skin allows for a more effective state of botrytis and therefore sweeter juice. When it comes to food, Foie gras, blue cheese and light chocolate desserts are excellent pairings for a late harvest Semillon.
Noble Rot: While it may not sound very appealing, some of the most sought after dessert wines in the world are made from grapes that are, well… rotten. The fruit is covered in a fungus called botrytis cinerea – also known as ‘noble rot,’ which causes it to shrivel up and dehydrate, leaving behind extra sweet pulp - which the winemakers then press for juice.
While it sounds and looks disgusting, it adds a unique and highly sought after flavour of ginger and honey to the wine.
Some of the world’s most exceptional sweet wines such as Sauternes from Bordeaux are made from Noble Rot. Readers may also be familiar with De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon - arguably Australia’s most famous dessert wine.
Wines made from botrytised grapes are generally medium-sweet to very sweet, typically displaying aromas and flavours of tropical, stone and soft citrus fruits, honey, marzipan and liquorice. These wines are not only beautiful with desserts such as a fruit tart, but are also perfect when accompanied by sharp washed-rind cheese and blues such as Roquefort.
Ice Wine (Eiswein): Freezing grapes is another way to concentrate sugars to make sweet wine. When made in the traditional way, ice wine, or ‘eiswein’ as it is often called in Germany and Austria, is left on the vine long after the typical harvest is finished until temperatures drop enough for the grapes to freeze. Ice wines are commonly produced in cold regions like Canada, Germany and Switzerland.
Fortified dessert wines such as Sherry, Port, and Madeira are made by adding alcohol (brandy spirits) during fermentation. This kills the yeasts that convert sugar to alcohol, leaving the wine very sweet and increasing the alcohol level to between 15 and 20%.The types of spirit used and the point in the process that the spirit is added has an enormous impact on the style of wine being made. Generally, the earlier the spirit is added, the sweeter the resulting wines.
After fortification, the wine is left to mature in oak barrels, sometimes for decades, developing into complex, aromatic wines, with immense depth and concentration of flavour and colour.
Muscat grapes are used to make a variety of sweet dessert wines in various parts of the world. Typically, these are fortified wines, although some sweet late harvest and noble rot wines are also made from Muscat grapes.
Liqueur Muscat is a fortified wine from the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, which is a white wine grape and considered one of the oldest grape varieties in existence (also known as Brown Muscat grapes). The wine is sweet, dark and highly alcoholic with similarities to the Portuguese fortified wine Madeira.
Liqueur Muscat essentially starts out as a late harvest wine, with the grapes left on the vine longer than usual - until they are practically raisins and very sweet.
Find our top picks here.