What Are Dessert Wines: A Guide to Tasty Wines


Like dessert? Like wine? Dessert wines are here to make your day! Let’s talk about the sweetest wines out there. 

What Is a Dessert Wine?

Like sugar? Then dessert wines are your girl! While some wines pair better with certain foods than others, like white wine with fish or Bev with anything,  dessert wines, in general, pair well with…well, dessert because of their sugar content

The definition of dessert wine is quite flexible in the world of wine. But, in general, dessert wine or sweet wines contain more than 14% alcohol. Keep in mind, the average glass of wine is around 11% to 13%. So, the alcohol content is remarkably higher than your average, every night glass of wine. That said, there are definitely sweet wines like the classic Italian Moscato (aka Moscato D'asti), made from Muscat and frequently produced in Italy, which is well known for its low percentage of alcohol and sweet content. 

In the United Kingdom, sweet wine also goes by the name 'pudding wine' because it is a wine that is served with dessert. 

Dessert wines are made from either red or white grape varieties and there are hundreds of different types of dessert wines, but there are five that are best known. Of course, as the name suggests and we alluded to, dessert wines are made to accompany dessert. But what we didn’t mention, they also pair deliciously with soft cheeses, pasta, bread, and smoked meats. Anything delicious that you would find on a charcuterie board will make your sweet wine even more delicious. 

How Does Dessert Wine Get So Sweet?

To make this extra sweet, extra delicious wine, winemakers prevent the fermentation from completing. That is, they don’t allow the yeast to convert all grapes residual sugars into alcohol. This leaves a rich wine that is sweetened with natural grape sugars. Can you say yum? 

There are other methods used to create the sweetness in sweet wines. For example, fortified sweet wines like Port also get their sweetness from grape brandy added in the winemaking process. In doing so, the wines also get higher alcohol levels, around 17-20% ABV. Which, FYI, remember when Four Loko was banned? Fortified wines have a higher ABV than the OG Four Lokos. 

There’s also ice wine, in which the grapes are allowed to freeze so that their juice is much sweeter than the average grape, or wines like the Italian Passito, in which the grapes dry on the wine (they’re basically raisins) for a similarly sweet finish. 

One of the most strange ways of creating the sweetness of dessert wines can be seen in how the Hungarian Tokaji dessert wine is crafted. Tokaji wine has been around for centuries and uses noble rot grapes that were affected by the botrytis cinerea fungus which occurs in grapes, apricots and other fruits. It might not sound so tasty, but it adds a great sweetness to the drinks that’s really distinct, which is why wines like Tokaji Aszu are so popular.

There is no denying that sweet wines are delicious. But you can also enjoy wine without all that extra sugar. Are we plugging ourselves right now? Why, of course we are! If you're looking for a red wine minus the sugar levels, there are options. Look for dry wines because the drier the wine, the least amount of sugar there is. And of course, if you're looking for a white, rose or red wine with a bit of dryness, hey there, we're Bev. We're crisp, dry, and a little fizzy at a total of ZERO sugar.

What Are the Major Types of Dessert Wine?

There are hundreds of dessert wine variations, but the main ones are sparkling dessert wine, lightly-sweet dessert wine, richly sweet dessert wine, sweet red wine, and fortified wine. All of these wines come from different backgrounds ranging from Hungary, Austria and California

If you are looking to switch it up a little bit from your standard reds like Zinfandel or Cabernet, or you want to pair a dessert with a white that’s sweeter than a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, then it just might be time to give one of these dessert wines a try.   

Sparkling

The most technical wine globally, Champagne, this wine goes through two fermentations to create bubbles. Zippy and light, sparkling dessert wines are known to have higher acidity than other dessert wines and are filled with flavors of fresh apple, lime, and lemon zest. If you want a sweeter sparkling wine, look for the label ‘demi-sec,’ which designates that it’ll be closer to a dessert wine. 

Richly Sweet

Made with the highest quality grapes, richly sweet dessert wine is highly concentrated and has intense aromas of dried pear, vanilla, and orange. 

Lightly Sweet

Refreshing and sweet, these white wines explode with fruit flavors. Riesling is a lightly sweet dessert wine and has intense fruity aromas of orchard fruits, like apple and pear. 

Fortified

These usually have a higher alcohol content, because they've been mixed with grape brandy. Popular versions are Sherry and Madeira

Sweet Red

A wine that stands out because red wine is often not sweet; this wine is usually chilled for better enjoyment and is known to have a familiar fruit taste. 

What Are the Most Popular Dessert Wines?

German Riesling

Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines. In Germany, the variety is particularly widely planted in the Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe, and Pfalz wine regions.

Chenin Blanc

A white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France, Chennin Blanc is known for its high acidity and ability to make everything from sparkling wines to dessert wines. It can also produce incredibly bland and neutral wines if the vine's natural vigor is not adequately controlled. France has a multitude of other popular wines such as sauternes from the province of Bordeaux.

Viognier

A white grape variety Viognier is the only permitted grape for the French Condrieu in the Rhône Valley. Viognier, like most white wines, requires delicate attention in how you pair it with food. The key is to use restraint and focus on the wine’s delicate flavors and medium acidity, rather than trying to drown it out with bold tastes.

Port

A Portuguese fortified wine, wines from Portugal are typically sweet red wines that also happen in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Pro tip: port wines are incredible with richly flavored cheeses (we’re talking blue cheese), chocolate and caramel desserts, salted and smoked nuts, and even sweet-smoky meats. So basically our favorite things. 

Sherry

Sherry is a fortified wine made with white grapes grown on the coast of the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain.

Late-Harvest

Late harvest wines are richly sweet and filled with intense aromas of pear, vanilla, and orange. Per their name, late harvest wines are created by leaving the grapes on the vine for longer. In doing so, the wines become sweeter and more raisinated. The result is a highly concentrated sweetness.