Wine as a whole is often described as ‘nectar of the gods’, but no category quite encapsulates the word nectar as well as dessert wine. Be they red, white, or sparkling, these sweet wines are famed for their ability to accompany a meal’s final course.
Many wines, such as shiraz, chardonnay and aged riesling, are so dry that it can be easy to forget that they are produced from a naturally sweet fruit. But on the other end of the spectrum, beyond the comparatively low key sweetness of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and even moscato, sit a group of wines that don’t just display a grape’s natural saccharinity, but greatly intensify it.
The term ‘dessert wine’ is a difficult one to define, as different cultures will place different wines within the category. Most commonly dessert wines are characterised by their higher alcohol and sugar content, much like fortified wines such as port. But unlike port they are served mainly as an accompaniment to sweet dishes.
An assortment of sweetness
To name dessert wines is to list an endless register of different brands, grapes, techniques and styles. But for the most part these wines can be compacted down into four major categories.
Sparkling: Traditional sparkling wines are known for their dry and highly acidic taste, which dulls their natural sweetness greatly. In contrast dessert sparklings are made with grapes that are naturally sweeter, which is reflected in the resultant wine. Sparkling bottles labelled with Demi-Sec, Dulce, Boux or Semi-Secco fit in this category.
Light sweet: There is some crossover between traditional whites and dessert whites in the light sweet category. Grapes such as riesling and viognier can be produced in both dry and sweet styles, which makes their sweet versions less intense than other dessert wines. Chenin blanc and gewürztraminer varieties also find themselves in this category.
Rich sweet: Rich sweet wines are those made from grapes renowned for their sweetness. These grapes are often harvested later than normal, allowing them to grow sweeter and more raisinated, while others are intentionally allowed to rot from contact with a spore called Botrytis cinerea which, while seemingly off-putting, engenders the resulting wine with notes of ginger and honey. The wines of Sauternes, Barsac, Tokaji and Passito are rich sweet examples.
Sweet red: While sweet reds are experiencing a decline in popularity, Lambrusco, Freisa and Schiava still produce sweet reds of note.
A spoonful of sugar
The inherent sweetness of dessert wines can be produced through four different methods.
Growing a sweet grape: Some grapes are naturally sweeter than others. But already sweet grapes can be grown even sweeter by cross-breeding different varieties, using special cultivation methods or harvesting late.
Adding sugar: Sweetness can be added to the wine in the form of sugar or honey before fermentation, or in the form of unfermented must after fermentation.
Adding alcohol: As is done with fortified wines, dessert wines can have brandy or neutral spirit added to them, which leaves residual sugar in the wine as it breaks down any yeast that is present.
Removing water: By removing water from the grape a more concentrated wine is created. Grapes can be air dried (raisin wine) and can be infected with a fungus (noble rot wine). Water can even be frozen out in cooler climates (ice wine).
“Every palate is different, so the only foolproof way to find the perfect pairing is to take a nibble of the dessert and wash it down with the wine.”