A Guide to Decoding Dessert Wines
Although less popular than dry wines, about 25% of wine drinkers sometimes consume dessert wine, which is particularly popular with older consumers. If you’re not drinking dessert wine, you’re missing out. Like dry wine, dessert wines have their own unique characteristics that make them special and awesome in their own way. Dessert wine is not just a drink, though! It’s a noble beverage that should be consumed in style. Just kidding. You can have it any way you want.
What is dessert wine?
What simply defines dessert wine is that it’s enjoyed during the last part of a meal. Although most dessert wines are sweet, some of them are dry wines and not so sweet in style. Sweet wines are ideal at dessert due to their sugar that stimulates digestion and eliminates further appetite. Choosing the right sweet wine determines how your meal ends. Although there are many dessert wines, they are categorized into many types, ranging from less sweet to a high level of sweetness, low alcohol content to high alcohol content, and wine geared toward younger drinkers and to those who are more experienced. In short, there is something for everyone when it comes to wine.
Why so sugary?
The sugar content in wine is what turns it into alcohol. This process happens when yeast consumes sugar to produce alcohol (ethanol). If yeast consumes all the sugar, it becomes dry wine and the alcohol content increases. For a wine to be classified as sweet, it has to have between 2 and 7.2 grams of sugar per 100 ml in the finished wine. A very sweet wine will have 7.2 – 13 grams of sugar per 100 ml. See the chart below for more details.
With this in mind, here’s the ultimate guide to dessert wines in order to prepare you for wine indulgence as you unwind this weekend.
- Late Harvest
What characterizes the different types of late harvest wines is the period during which grapes are left to dry out to increase its sweetness. Almost all grape varieties can be made into a late harvest style. This incorporates several winemaking techniques that lead to different flavors. Some terms:
- Late Harvest
The process of late harvest means leaving the grapes on the vine to pick later, after the season.
- Noble Rot
Noble rot is a kind of fungus that develops on grapes, especially in foggy regions. It sounds gross but essentially this fungus increases the sweetness of the wine, often providing honey, saffron, and ginger notes.
- Dried Grape
This style of wine processing is common in Italy with different methods and styles of dried grape wines produced. The harvested grapes are laid out on mats to dry in special rooms before being pressed into wine.
- Ice Wine
Ice wine is produced from frozen vines with grapes which are picked and pressed to release their sugar.
Fortified wines are blends of wine and a grape-based spirit which is added either during or after fermentation. This depends on whether you want it dry or sweet. The spirit will rise to about 30% of the blend. Blending before fermentation ends makes the wine sweet since there will be traces of sugar left in the wine. Fortification after fermentation ends will make the wine dry. Fortified wines will have higher alcohol content, whether dry or sweet.
Sherry is produced by three major grapes, namely Palomino Fino (accounting for the bulk of Sherry production), Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez.
Port is always sweet and red in color, compared to Sherry. It is made using local Portuguese grape Touriga Nacional and other locally available grapes.
This sweet or dry wine can last for centuries and is made using four core grapes, Sercial, Malmsey, Verdelho, and Bual.
Marsala is typically made from white grapes, the best versions being from the Grillo grape. Depending on when the wine was fortified, Marsala ranges from dry to sweet.
- Rutherglen Muscat
This wine is fortified during fermentation with Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains and left on the vine to increase its sugar. It is then aged oxidatively in barrel, creating a sweet wine with intense flavors.
This wine is fruit forward and aged in a barrel. Banyuls has concentrated aromas and flavors of baked red berries, prunes, and spice.
Passito is a style of Italian sweet wine made from dried grapes. The winemaking technique of Passito involves late-harvesting grapes which are selected carefully and laid on mats to dry. This process increases their sweetness level and flavor.
- Vin Santo Del Chianti
From the heart of Tuscany, Vin Santo Del Chianti is made from grapes like Trebbiano, Toscano, and Malvasia. It undergoes significant barrel aging of three to eight years in oak or chestnut barrels. Usually, it has a golden raisin color and dried fruit flavors.
- Recioto Della Valpolicella
Made from dried Rondinella, Corvina, and Molinara grapes, this unique and awesome wine is produced in Veneto. The grapes are dried on straw mats and later fermented to achieve an alcohol content of about 14%. The characteristics of this wine are dried berry and raisin notes coupled with chocolate and vanilla.
Customarily in the language of wine, oxidation is the physical process of dissolving oxygen into the wine. Although oxidation is regarded as bad for dry table wines, in dessert wines, it can be good for adding flavour to a wine. For dessert wines, oxidation is usually caused by aging for long periods in oak barrels, which softens the wines and causes them to lose their fruitiness, making them gain a rich, nutty flavor.
Sparkling wine involves a second fermentation process, which causes the wine to become naturally carbonated. While sparkling wine is often dry, when searching for sweet wines, you’ll often notice sweeter grape varieties like Moscato and Riesling. These are preferred as dessert sparkling wines and pair well with lighter desserts. My personal favorite is Moscato d’Asti, which is perfect with summer fruit salad. Nowadays, Moscato d’Asti is available in semi-sparkling and fully sparkling versions, both with its distinctive fruity sweetness.
One thing to watch for when looking for a refreshing sweet wine is the alcohol content. Port will have a high alcohol content, while many dessert wines are lower in alcohol. That said, whichever you choose, you’re in in for an awesome time!