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Sweet as Can Be: The Best Dessert Wines

Sweet as Can Be: The Best Dessert Wines

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End your meal with a sweet treat

There are so many decisions involved with a Christmas dinner-- and it seems there’s little agreement. Mashed potatoes or roasted? Should you prepare a prime rib or baked ham? Do you watch Elf or The Christmas Story after dinner?

But when you pull out a bottle of sweet wine for after-dinner drinks, we’re pretty sure that no one will have an objection. Below are some ideas for sweet holiday wines that everyone can agree on. And remember, sweet wines are very concentrated, so you only need to serve a small amount (usually about 2 ounces). That means just a half bottle of sweet wine will serve 6.

DASHE CELLARS Late Harvest Zinfandel 2009 (Dry Creek Valley, California) $24 for the 375 milliliter half bottle

In this dessert wine, zinfandel gets to show off its jammy spiciness. The wine has a lovely balance of acidity and sweetness, with hints of black raspberries, lavender and cocoa.
Pair with: Chocolate pecan pie

EOS ESTATE “Tears of Dew” 2010 (Paso Robles, California) $22 for the 375 milliliter half bottle

Though it’s made with the moscato grape — muscat blanc to be exact — this is a late harvest wine, so the flavors are concentrated and intense. We love the explosion of peach and lychee flavors with notes of white flowers.
Pair with: Ginger cake or cookies and caramel desserts

JACKSON-TRIGGS Proprietors' Grand Reserve Cabernet Franc Icewine 2008 (Niagara, Canada) $60 for the 375 milliliter half bottle

Cabernet franc grapes that have frozen on the vine are pressed to make this wine that has intense sweetness and fresh acidity. This juicy number from Canada sings with rhubarb, raspberry and strawberry flavors.
Pair with: Dark chocolate or blue cheese

KLEIN CONSTANTIA Vin de Constance 2006 (Cape Coastal, South Africa) $45 for the 500 milliliter bottle

Royalty like Napoleon and George IV were mad about this sweet wine made from South African white muscat grapes. It’s a deep gold hue with flavors of honey and citrus, and has bright freshness.
Pair with: Fruitcake, pumpkin pie, pecan pie

Dessert wines to drink after dinner

Wine is rapidly becoming the drink of choice among Americans. Not only is the number of people drinking wine increasing, the number of wines on the market is also on the rise. Experts estimate that, by 2015, Americans may even drink more wine than the French! No doubt you are familiar with the usual reds and whites, but did you know that there is also a category of wines that are sweet enough to replace your favorite dessert? Dessert wines are luscious after-dinner drinks that will linger on your palate more deliciously than any mousse, cake or pie. You’ve got to try one! Read on to learn more about these lovely sweet wines.

Dessert wines bring a novel and luscious end to a meal

Debra and Keith Gordon, authors of Wine on Tuesdays, are passionate about wine and want to foster your passion too. They believe wine is fun, fresh and meant to be enjoyed at all times – that includes at dessert.

Sure it’s easier to order the cheesecake, chocolate mousse or apple pie, but chances are you’ve already had them a time or two. What’s novel about that? Why not savoringly sip a sweet, full-flavored dessert wine, instead?

What is dessert wine?

In a word, ambrosia. The Gordons say that there is actually no clear definition of a dessert wine, but that these sweeter, full-flavored wines provide an ambrosial completion to the meal they follow. This is unlike the more acidic, lighter wines enjoyed during a meal. Acidic wines open the palate, sweet wines close it.

Typically, dessert wines are sold in half-bottles. The smaller quantity reflects the way these sweet wines are to be drank. You sip – not gulp – small amounts of a dessert wine after a meal. And packaging the wine in a smaller bottle means there is less wine to spoil before it is all drunk.

You can purchase your own bottles of dessert wines as well as order a glass at some of the more upscale restaurants. Following are the different types of dessert wines that you can try after your next evening meal.

Late Harvest Wines

According to the Gordons, late harvest wines come from grapes that are left on the vine longer than those picked for regular wines. The grapes are able to achieve higher levels of sugar, which means they also have higher levels of alcohol.

Dessert wines pair impeccably with fruit tarts or crème brulee, but they are just as satisfying sipped on their own.

The Gordons suggest German Auslese, Beernauslese (only produced three out of every 10 years), and Trockenbeerenauslese (which has more sugar and alcohol). Look for dessert wines made by Wegeler-Deinhard, Pauly-Bergweiler, Dr H Thanish, Selback-Oster, and Schloss Saarstein.

Late harvest wines are also available from Washington, Oregon and Virginia.

Ice Wines

Considered a very late harvest wine, ice wines are made from grapes that actually freeze on the vine. They are picked in the early morning hours (usually between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.) and then crushed.

According to the Gordons, ice wines are even sweeter than younger late harvest wines and they are ideal for aging. Ice wines are also more expensive than younger late harvest wines.

The most common grapes used in ice wines are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. These wines exude notes of honey, apricot, butterscotch, and spice, countered with a crisp acidity.


You will be surprised to find out that one of the finest wines in the world is made from a fungus that rots grapes. The Gordons explain that late in the growing season, Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc grapes left on the vine develop a fungus called botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble rot.”

The clusters of grapes shrivel like raisins and become highly concentrated in sugar. Once harvested, the grapes are turned into some of the most prized, long-lived wines in the world. What makes Sauternes so special is their clean flavor, complexity and balance. Their sweetness lingers on the palate long after you’ve finished your glass.

The Gordons recommend Tokaij of Hungary, German Trockenbeerenauslese, and, hands down, French Sauternes. Specifically, Chateau D’Yquem, Guirand, Rieussec, D’Arche and Lamothe. These are quite pricey, but worth the experience.

Drink your dessert

Once you start sampling dessert wines, with or without a perfectly paired dessert, you may just find that you’d rather drink dessert than eat it.

Debra and Keith Gordon want you to comfortably reach for a glass of dessert wine and enjoy it. Their book Wine on Tuesdays gives you a history of wine, explains the different varietals and food pairings, and provides shopping and ordering tips. Wine on Tuesdays is not a complicated stuffy book. It gives you an understandable approach to exploring the many types of wine as well as the confidence to buy, order and drink America’s new favorite drink.

As the World Sauternes

"Sweet wines have gotten a reputation for not being very good," says Alan Murray, wine director of San Francisco's Mourad, who also happens to be a Master Sommelier and instructor at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California. "But great dessert wines really are great wines," he adds.

"But I like my wines dry!" you protest.

We get it. But we're not talking blue-bottle Riesling or white Zin over here, or about the big-batch, fruity stuff you find in the double bottles. We're talking about dessert wine–real dessert wine–which is crafted just as carefully, if not more so, than its bone-dry cousins. Rich, complex and intensely aromatic, these wines are great for sipping on their own, but they're even better when you have them with food.

It's worth noting that making a great dessert wine is a painstaking process. Its flavor comes not from added sweeteners, but rather from its own natural sugars, which are heavily concentrated a couple of ways: by harvesting late in the season, drying the grapes on mats or even allowing them to freeze on the vine. Among the sweetest are Hungary's famous honey-like Tokajis, like the 2007 Disznók? Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos ($33 for 500ml), which often take years to ferment.

A selection of dessert wines

But despite their complexity, dessert wines are easy to appreciate. "As an educator, I find that people instantly recognize the length and persistence on the palate," Murray says.

There are a few rules to remember. The first is that the best dessert wine pairings happen when your wine is sweeter than what's on your plate–it keeps the wine from tasting bitter and will help the flavors to balance out. After that, it's really just what you're in the mood for.

For beginners, Murray recommends Muscat, he adds, with its telltale flavors of orange peel, roses and honey. He likes the 2012 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($14 for 375ml) with an equally unfussy dessert, a bowl of ice cream.

If a savory pairing is more your speed, there's plenty to explore by way of foie gras and Sauternes, a classic match that can come at a surprising bargain: A half bottle from Château Rieussec can be had for less than $20. You can keep things sweet, if you'd like, too: Try pairing that bottle with a simple custard or an apple tarte tatin.

You may be thinking, What should I drink right now, considering how cold it is? An evening fireside calls for a nutty, amber-hued Vin Santo from Tuscany's Badia a Coltibuono ($34 for 375ml). Stick with a regional pairing and sip it alongside crisp biscotti or a crostata di frutta. And if chocolate's what you're after (ahem, Valentine's Day), lighten things up with a Brachetto d'Acqui, a sweet, red sparkler from Piedmont. And save a fizzy, delicate and intensely floral Moscato d'Asti for the warmer days ahead.

Don't be afraid to seek out dessert wines on your next trip to the shop. Those little bottles should command your full attention.

10 Perfectly Matched Dessert & Wine Pairings

Lemon-Poached Pears with Two Sauces
Enhance the fruitiness of this dish with a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from Domaine de Durban (2006, Rhone Valley, France, $14), a traditional Muscat full of apricot and pear, Vayda says. For a lighter option, try a "more citrus, semisweet, still or sparkling chenin blanc wine" from South Africa, Australia or Vouvray, France. Photo: Jacqueline Hopkins/Woman's Day

Good Old-Fashioned Apple Pie
Vayda recommends keeping it "all-American" with the honey- and tree fruit&ndashlike Hermann J. Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling (2008, Finger Lakes, New York, $19). Alternatively, try something "slightly fizzy with an apricot fruit," such as a Moscato d'Asti from Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Charles Schiller/Woman's Day

Chocolate Mousse Cups
The deep chocolate taste of this recipe "matches beautifully with the spicy, lush berry" flavor of Edmeades' Zinfandel Alden Vineyard Late Harvest (2005, Mendocino, California, $23), Vayda says. Another option: an Argentinean malbec or Shiraz port from Australia. Photo: Marcus Tullis/Woman's Day

Heavenly Bananas Foster Bread Pudding
Vayda recommends splurging on the rich, tropical-tinged Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine (2007, Niagara Peninsula, Canada, $17). Buy the 187 ml bottle: "You only need a little," he says. Or try a caramel Bual or Malmsey Madeira "to pair with the rum flavor." Photo: Mary Ellen Bartle/Woman's Dayy

Mile-High Pumpkin Meringue Tart
Kiona's Late Harvest Gewürztraminer (2002, Washington, $12), with its "spice and honey" flavors, will be a winning addition to this dessert, Vayda says. Another terrific option: a white dessert wine, such as a Vin Santo from Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Con Poulos/Woman's Day

Chocolate-Orange Mascarpone Pie
Try the Quady Essensia Orange Muscat (2008, California, $22), which Vayda says will "match the orange citrus and richness" of this pie. Alternatively, liven things up with a red, such as an off-dry sparkling shiraz from Australia, which will "offset the cheese, too." Photo: Iain Bagwell/Woman's Day

Lemon-Cornmeal Cake
"Go retro with the zesty citrus of the traditional Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante (non-vintage, Piedmont, Italy, $14)," Vayda says. "Or try a bargain semisweet or sweet (demi-sec, doux) sparkler from Chile or even southern France." Photo: Antonis Achilleos/Woman's Day

Cherry Turnovers
To amplify the fruity flavor of this classic recipe, Vayda recommends a sparkling berry wine, such as Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto (2009, Piedmont, Italy, $19), or a fortified, ruby port with cherry and plum overtones from Portugal. Photo: Ellie Miller/Woman's Day

Mini&ndashCarrot Cakes
For these rich, spicy cakes, Vayda recommends a Sémillon varietal, such as the Kanu Kia-Ora Noble Late Harvest (2005, Western Cape, South Africa, $19), with notes of honey and pear, or a similarly styled South African or Australian wine. Photo: Kate Sears/Woman's Day

Strawberry Cheesecake
"Celebrate with a rich and frothy Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine (2005 North Coast, California, $29)," Vayda says, "or go sparkling pink with a reinvigorated juicy red Lambrusco Grasparossa" from Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Photo: Dasha Wright/Woman's Day

10 Regional Dessert Wines

Nearly every winemaking region in the world has its own sweet dessert wines. These are some of the best-known dessert wines:

  1. Eiswein: Literally "ice wine," this unfortified sweet wine from Germany and Austria features grapes—often Riesling—that have frozen on the vine, concentrating both their sweetness and acidity.
  2. Beerenauslese: This designation, which means "berry selection" in German, is given to wines in Germany and Austria that are made with grapes, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer, that have been affected by noble rot.
  3. Passito: Passito is a category of unfortified Italian dried-grape wines. Drying the grapes concentrates the sugars, resulting in a sweeter, more alcoholic wine. Many popular Italian wines are also made as a passito, such as Brachetto d'Acqui and Moscato di Pantelleria (Muscat of Alexandria).
  4. Moscato d’Asti: This sweet, unfortified, slightly sparkling wine comes from Piedmont in the northwest of Italy. Moscato d'Asti is more of a breakfast wine than a dessert wine, but Moscato d’Asti Vendemmia Tardiva, made from dried grapes, has a pronounced sweetness more typically associated with dessert. Both are made with Moscato Bianco (aka Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains).
  5. Madeira: Madeira is a fortified wine from the island of Madeira in Portugal, 450 miles off the coast of Morocco. Intentional oxidation during the winemaking process creates nutty, bruised-apple or apricot notes in styles that range from dry to quite sweet, and shades of light amber to tawny caramel.
  6. Port wine: This fortified wine gets its name from the city of Porto, Portugal, and is produced in the Douro Valley. Port is made from both white and red wine grapes. While port is always aged at least two years, tawny port is aged even longer, anywhere from 10 to 40 years.
  7. Tokaji Aszú: Made from partially dried grapes affected by noble rot, this unfortified wine from Hungary is high in residual sugar. It’s typically orange in color due to skin contact in the winemaking process.
  8. Sauternes: Sauternes is a region in France, south of Bordeaux, famous for its production of unfortified sweet white wines. It is made primarily from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes affected by noble rot.
  9. Vin doux nature: Meaning "naturally sweet" in French, this wine is made by halting fermentation with the addition of alcohol. The grapes involved are typically Muscat grape varieties and Grenache.
  10. Sherry: This fortified wine is produced in the Jerez region of Spain and is made from the Palomino, Muscat, or Pedro Ximénez grape. Sherry production is unique in that the winemaker intentionally exposes the wine to oxygen, which imparts a nutty and briny flavor profile.

Three of the Best Italian Dessert Wines

There is no better way to understand Italy’s complexity than through its wine. The fresh breeze of the sea, the crisp cold mountain air, the penetrating scent of Mediterranean scrubland, the tart sweetness of forest fruits, all make their way into the bottle, creating a huge range of bouquets and flavours that reflects the scenery and quirks of the Italian terroir.

But while this gustatory gamut has long delighted dry wine aficionados from around the world, few people realise that local character emerges just as forcefully in dessert wines, a somewhat overlooked Italian production.

Just take a moscato from Friuli - pale straw in colour, lightly sweet in the mouth, with plenty of acidity to cut through the sweetness - and the same wine made in southern Sardinia - a golden triumph of Baroque-like richness, its honeyed sweetness almost solid in the mouth. The first speaks of cold winters and cool summers, of verdant hills and thick woods the second is sunshine in a bottle.

Add wine culture and vinification processes to geography and you end up with an infinite variety of dessert wines. Straw wines from the Centre and South, late harvest wines from the North and the Islands, and then noble rot, icewines—there’s an Italian dessert wine to suit every cheese, every pudding and every mood.

To help you choose, we have picked three of the very best.

Moscato d'Asti

Moscato d'Asti, lightly sweet, gently effervescent and low in alcohol, is mainly produced in the hilltop town of Asti (not to be confused with Asti spumante), and in the nearby provinces of Alessandria and Cuneo in the north-western region of Piedmont.

Obtained from the Moscato bianco grape, which is considered the best within the Muscat family of grapes, it takes its name from its earthy musk aroma. It is believed to date as far back as the 1300s. Moscato bianco is in fact considered one of the oldest grapes grown in that area.

As a sparkling wine, Moscato d’Asti used to be a wine that winemakers made for themselves, to be drunk at lunch so that, thanks to its low alcohol content, it would not slow them and their workers down. In the evenings, multi-course meals called for a digestif to clean the palate and prepare it for dessert, and Moscato served that purpose.

Combining sweetness and acidity, it has a delicate but complex aroma, with hints of oranges and dried apricots. It should be served slightly chilled. Go for a DOCG Moscato d’Asti, which is a guarantee of the quality of the product, still made my small producers.

Moscato d’Asti has seen its sales increase by 73% since 2011, and its exports to the United States have soared. It is especially popular among consumers under the age of 45, both because of its affordability and, curiously, thanks to its adoption as the drink of choice by hip-hop culture.

The name itself is enough to make you want to try Vin Santo. It means Holy Wine and there are several theories as to how it arose. One story has it that, in the Middle Ages, a Franciscan friar used altar wine to save people from the Black Death. Believing it to be miraculous, the Tuscan populace quickly named it Vin Santo.

Another story wants the name to come from none other than Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek scholar who tried (in vain) to reconcile the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the ecumenical Council of Florence, he tried a glass of sweet wine and declared it to be Xantos - meaning, presumably, that it reminded him of the Greek wine from Xantos. Whatever he really wanted to say, however, got lost in translation, as the Florentines mistook his word for Santo, and the wine became known as Holy.

Be as it may, Vin Santo is certainly fit for saints, or at the very least kings - saints being, hopefully, far beyond the temptations of the palate. Usually made from Trebbiano and Malvasia varieties, it can be incredibly sweet or dry. Grapes are picked and left to dry on rush mats (or hung from the rafters) for a few months before being pressed—the sugar in the grapes concentrates as they slowly turn into raisins. The juice is then fermented and aged for up to ten years in small cigar-shaped barrels that are not completely full. The wine is thus exposed to air, acquiring character and colour.
When ready, Vin Santo is rich golden and viscous, with a scent of apricots and a smooth taste of caramel and nuts. The nutty notes are what make the sweeter Vin Santo perfect with cantuccini - these Tuscan almond biscuits are dunked in the wine, which they soak up beautifully.

But the best, most complex Vin Santo should be savoured by itself to enjoy the miraculous taste that makes it worthy of its name.

Passito di Pantelleria

It is a miracle that this wine still survives. Pantelleria is a tiny island, and wind-beaten - the Arabs, who once ruled this lump of rock between Italy and Africa, called it "daughter of the wind". Picking the grapes in the blowing gales is hard work, and young islanders tend to go elsewhere to find their fortunes anyway. Production has been slowly decreasing in recent years but there is yet hope for the future, in the form of investment from big Sicilian winemakers, and the recent creation of a consortium to save local vineyards.

Let’s root for it, because losing this treasure of Italian oenology would be a real shame. The origins of the Passito are wrapped in the mist of time, but legend has it that the goddess Tanit won Apollo’s love by serving him a cup of the Pantelleria wine - no mean feat, considering that the Olympian god was used to nectar and ambrosia.

Perhaps inspired by the story, one of the world’s greatest womanisers, Giacomo Casanova, used to offer a glass of Passito to the ladies he intended to seduce. But then Passito, made with the aromatic Zibibbo grapes, is good enough to win hearts.

The grapes are picked early, often in August, placed to dry on straw mats under the blazing sun for a few weeks, and turned every day to prevent rotting. They are then pressed, often together with newly harvested grapes, and fermented for a long time. Some winemakers also add raisins at a later stage for a more intense flavour.

This makes a velvety wine with deep amber colour and intense scents of dried figs, apricot and date. In the mouth, it is warm and round, honeyed and intensely sweet. Great with rich Sicilian desserts, but even better on its own.

No-Churn Vanilla Raspberry Ice Cream

Servings: 4-6

2 cups heavy whipping cream, very cold
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pint raspberries (or other fruit)

  1. Pour two cups heavy whipping cream into a large bowl. Using a whisk, beat the cream for about two minutes until thickened. Add the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract. Continue to beat the cream until soft peaks emerge.
  2. Mash the raspberries with a fork and swirl them into the cream mixture. Transfer mixture into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for 4-6 hours or until completely frozen.


Many cultures have their own version of an after dinner cordial or liqueur. In the Italian culture, Sambuca, Frangelico, Grappa, and Amaretto are some of the most popular after dinner drinks. They
are often poured into hot coffee for an after dinner coffee or served with biscotti, but can also be sipped on their own.

Frangelico has a less sweet, hazelnut flavor while Sambuca has the taste of anise or licorice. Grappa is made from grapes and is similar to brandy, and Amaretto exudes a lovely almond flavor.

More decadent cordials like Irish cream, chocolate liqueur and Kahlua are delicious served in coffee, with milk, or simply enjoyed chilled. Coffee flavored liqueurs like Tia Maria or fruit flavored
liqueurs like Grand Marnier (cherry) and Chambord (raspberry) are also great choices for a sweet after dinner beverage. Usually cordials are sipped and savored in glasses poured only about
three-fourths of the way full or in double shot glasses.

10 Best Sweet Wines to Add to Your Bar Cart

I'm not gonna lie: The first time I tried a dry wine, I was like "Ew, what is this?" It took some time to get used to the tart-tasting grapes. Some might say my palette wasn't quite sophisticated, but I instantly fell in love with sweet wines. To this day, they're still a fave, especially when I wanna drink my dessert.

Whether you're into drinking rosé year round or love a sugary glass of moscato, you'll find the best sweet wines around below. May I suggest taking some of the canned options to the park with you for your next picnic or pop the cork on a sparkly bottle for your next celebration? Either way, there's a sweet wine for every reason ahead.

Your next beach day needs this yummy sweety. Plus imagine how cute that flower-decorated can will look in your Insta pics.

Yep, pink pinot grigio is a thing and it's not too sweet, which is perfect for when you want something slightly on the dry side.

You don't need to raid the fruit section at your grocery store to enjoy a glass of sangria. This delicious bottle makes it easy to enjoy the sweet, fruity drink.

All your toast-worthy moments will be even sweeter when you get this pink champagne flowing.

You can think of this canned beverage as the grown up version of popsicles.

It can be tough to measure out the perfect amount, but these wines come in perfectly-sized bottles that equal one proper glass.

You know how juicy and sweet peaches are? Well, this riesling has notes of the sugary fruit and tastes just as delightful.

The name of this one says it all. You have to pop this one open before the temperatures start to drop. And actually I don't blame you if you keep it in rotation through the fall and winter too because it's that good.

You haven't really enjoyed moscato until you've had Cupcake's. It's sweeter than the actual dessert and, IMO, tastes waaaaay better.

There's a reason why this one's a best seller: Like a lot of other rosés it's not too sweet and I can personally say that it's so damn refreshing on a hot summer day.

Sweet Wines 101

When it comes to fine dessert pours, you always remember your first wine. Tasting a rich Sauternes changes one's outlook on wine: Suddenly, "sweet wine" isn't just treacly plonk for the cola crowd, and the white Zin and "Mad Dog" misadventures of college times are mercifully flushed down the memory hole.

Despite its grandeur, dessert wine certainly doesn't have as big a tent as Cabernet, and it's probably just as well, since there is a lot less of it to go around. That is because serious sweet wines only get sweet when a winemaker uses extra rigor and care in crafting them.

In Canada, for example, grapes for ice wine must be picked in a pre-dawn frenzy to get them to the crushpad before they thaw out. Hungarian Tokaji Eszencia, the most concentrated wine in the world, has reached sugar levels of 900 grams per liter, and it takes years to ferment it can take more than 100 pounds of grapes—enough for 50 bottles of table wine—to make one liter. Other sweeties call for patience, too—there are Sherries, Ports and Madeiras that are aged 20, 50, even 100 years at the winery before release.

Here are a few of the ways winemakers can achieve sweetness in their wines:

Pour Some Sugar on Me?

Cranking sugar out of grapes can be a hell of a chore. Why not just add a giant bag of it to the wine? You can't! With few exceptions, top winemaking regions consider this cheating, and forbid it in the making of fine dessert wine. The technique known as chaptalization, in which non-grape sugar is added to the fermentation, is permitted in certain cooler regions during weaker vintages—generally not to sweeten a wine, but to raise the final alcohol level in a dry wine when the grapes did not ripen fully. However, where high quality is not the main concern, some winemakers do simply inject a little sweet grape concentrate after fermentation.

One place where the addition of sugar is not only permitted but enshrined as traditional practice is in Champagne. After the wine has undergone its secondary fermentation in bottle to create the bubbles, Champagne is bone dry and very high in acid. To temper that and increase aging potential, most producers top off each bottle with a dosage—a tiny bit of sugar dissolved in wine, or naturally sugary grape juice–which determines whether it's dry (brut), semi-sweet, (sec or demi-sec) or sweet (doux). Prickly-dry sparklers with little or no dosage have grown in popularity, but so have dolce bubblies ranging from pink Moscato to hedonistic Champagnes with names like "Nectar" and "Rich."

Late Harvest

Intentional overripeness may sound like an oxymoron, but this can be desirable for making sweet wines—as long as the grapes have enough acidity to balance the high sugar levels. Grapes destined for dessert wine are left on the vine as long as possible to increase the sugars, sometimes until they are shriveled—with harvest taking place as late as the end of November, or even early December, in the northern hemisphere.

Once the juice hits the vat for these wines, their residual sugar, as it is called, is preserved because winemakers do not ferment the wines to dryness, so the resulting alcohol levels are usually around 8 percent. It's not a secret trick: Even grapes harvested on an earlier schedule can retain a touch of sweetness if their fermentation is cut short. (There was a market sensation in the 1980s made just so: Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay.)

Perhaps the most famous late-harvest wines come from Germany and the French regions of Alsace and the Loire, and showcase grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. If you're shopping for a sweet release, you can usually identify these wines by a label term like "late harvest," vendange tardive (French: "late harvest"), spätlese (German: "late harvest") or auslese ("select harvest," even later). In Germany, however, these terms correlate with a grape's must weight at the time of harvest—a measure of the sugar content before fermentation—rather than the final sweetness of the wine. Thus, even sugary auslese harvest can be fermented into a dry, or nearly dry, wine. (The designation "trocken" on the label indicates a wine with little or no residual sugar.)


Responsible for many of the most famed dessert wines of the Old World, Botrytis cinerea is better known as "noble rot." This is not an infelicity of translation even the more mellifluous pourriture noble is just a French way of saying "good stuff, but rotten." That's because this is a fungus—a sometimes-beneficial form of gray rot that, on healthy grapes, concentrates the sugars for a complex, honeyed character in the wine.

The fungus tends to hang out in damp areas and grows on the skins of grapes, which become thinner and more porous, shedding some water from the pulp and transforming into shriveled, furry-looking growths. Red grapes generally become unusable with the rot, but white varieties, such as Sémillion, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chenin Blanc, produce rich, unctuous sweet wines instead.

You may have to pay out for a taste of that nobility, however: With so much of the grape mass lost, it can take a whole vine's worth of shriveled fruit or more to produce one glass of wine at top estates. The list of wines that owe their existence to botrytis reads like a monarch's after-dinner menu: Sauternes and Barsac from Bordeaux (made with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc), German beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese (typically Riesling), Hungary's storied Tokaji Aszú (mostly Furmint) and Quarts de Chaume (Chenin Blanc) out of the central Loire.

Dried Grapes

One of the oldest methods known to winemakers, the process of drying out grapes to concentrate their sugars naturally, arose in the hot Mediterranean terroirs where Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans tended their vines thousands of years ago, and this technique has remained basically unchanged since antiquity. There is more than one way to dry a grape—leaving them to raisin on the stalk, or placing picked bunches on a straw mat in the sun, in a warehouse hanging from a rack, or on a roof—but all yield similar results, a rich wine that requires a lot of grapes.

Examples of these "straw wines" or "raisin wines" include the vin de paille of France's Jura region, the Commandaria wine of Cyprus and passito wines from Italian regions such as Tuscany (Vin Santo) and the Veneto (Recioto della Valpolicella or Recioto di Soave Amarone is made from dried grapes but fermented to dryness). Some of the best sweet Sherries—which undergo additional steps—are made using dried Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel de Alejandría grapes.

Frozen Grapes

Chilly climes, such as those in Canada, can’t depend on botrytis or, well, heat. But if you can’t cook the H2O off, you can always freeze it up!

Ice wine follows yet another means to the same end as other dessert wines, concentrating the grape sugars by freezing the water to separate it out. As sugar does not freeze, the icy grapes can be pressed—with, it must be noted, a great deal of difficulty—to produce a viscous sugar-liquid. For the most part, true ice wine (or eiswein) production is limited to the wine world's frostier extremities, and Canada and Germany, the primary sources of it, maintain strict regulations on sugar and levels and temperatures: The grapes must undergo a hard freeze—17° F or 19° F, for Canada and Germany, respectively, at the time of picking.

Growing ice wine grapes is a bit of a cat and mouse game, where the cats, in this case, are birds. A mild winter can mean no frost until as late as February, so winemakers throw nets over the vines to keep avian snackers away the nets also catch grapes that begin to fall from the vines.

In areas that don't often dip to such icy lows, wineries are sometimes permitted to freeze their stock mechanically, and press off the concentrated remains.

Courtesy of Domaine Carneros, Weingut Fritz Haag, the Antique Wine Co., Gonzalez Byass, Dr. Loosen Quinta do Noval and Christie's.

Beefed-Up Grapes

Whoever first invented the process of fortification—adding neutral grape spirits to a wine—remains a mystery, but the style became immensely popular in the Spanish and Portuguese pours favored by the British, in part because the wines were hardy enough to ship to colonial outposts without damage.

Take Port, the jewel of Portugal's Douro region. More than 80 different grape varieties are permitted (though five are favored) to be used in its production. In the vat, the infusion of a brandy-like spirit kills the yeasts, halting fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. The result is a naturally sweet wine with high alcohol level, typically 18 to 20 percent. Port is made in a range of styles (requiring more detail than we'll get into here, but you can read "A Port Primer" to learn more), and like Champagne, most Ports are a blend of vintages, to present a consistent house style. At the basic level are fruity ruby Ports, aged for two to three years. Aged tawny Ports—the blends are typically identified as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years—spend an extended time in wooden casks, imbuing the wine with a nutty, toffee flavor and its namesake hue. At the pinnacle is Vintage Port, made in the best years, entirely from one vintage, which are released young but should generally be aged in bottle for a decade or more before drinking.

Fortified wines are not always sweet. Sherry, from Spain's Jerez region, is usually fermented dry before it is fortified, and the lightest, driest styles, fino and Manzanilla, stay that way. (For more details about Sherry production and styles, check out "ABCs of Sherry".) Sweet Sherries, such as cream, are made by adding sweetening to dry Sherry—typically juice from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes that were dried on mats, or wine fermented from it. These dried grapes may also be made into rare, rich, syrupy Sherries of their own.

Sherry is matured in a system of barrel-aging called the solera, in which newly fermented wines are added to casks of older wines, topped up each vintage, so the blend in a solera can thus have traces of century-old vintages in it.

These are all tough wines, but the heavyweight champion in this style is Madeira, which is made on a small archipelago off Portugal of the same name. Madeira, like Port, is fortified mid-fermentation. And then, it is put through the wine equivalent of Navy SEAL training. Exposed to oxygen during aging, it is actually baked at temperatures of up to 130° F in the barrel or tank, giving it a caramelized character. ("Maderized" is a wine term to describe what happens to more fragile wines accidentally ruined by these conditions.) The best Madeiras are made from one of four key grapes, which range in style, from driest to sweetest: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (Malvasia). The amount of time they are aged before bottling ranges dramatically for a good introduction, look for five-, 10- or 15-Year-Old Madeira. Vintage Madeira, which must all be from one vintage, is aged for at least 20 years in cask and another two in bottle.

The resulting wine, unlike most, isn't afraid of heat, air or age. You can open a bottle and then return to it again months later, or you can cellar it for centuries.

In truth, we don't know how long Madeira can age. Existing, perfectly drinkable samples date to the early 1700s. On the whole, the combination of sugar, tannins and oxidation—supercharged by extra alcohol—makes the finest fortified wines nigh-eternal. (Intrigued? Learn more about Madeira in our recent exploration, "Madeira Reborn.")

With all these protocols and pitfalls to dessert winemaking, even the notoriously tricky Pinot Noir doesn't seem so hard in comparison. So here's to the winemakers who are sweet enough to make it for us.


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