What is a Dessert Wine?


Like Jerry Maguire, "You had me at hello," this wine had us at dessert. But let's be honest, you would also have us at just dessert and just wine. 

A dessert wine is like the middle sibling that doesn't get talked about much, which is a shame because it's delicious, and if you're the next Sara Lee, you can take your dessert course to a whole new level. All that said, we're going to dedicate some time to talking about dessert wine because she deserves it! 

On a technical side, dessert wines are those that contain more than 14% alcohol, which is a pretty darn high alcohol content. But from a more human standpoint, dessert wines are aptly named because they are wines that are enjoyed during or after dessert. To make a dessert wine, winemakers stop the fermentation process before yeast converts all of the grape sugar into alcohol. What's left is a rich wine that is deliciously sweetened with natural grape sugars from all different grape varieties! 

While there are hundreds of dessert wines, five best known; these include sparkling dessert wine, lightly sweet dessert wine, richly sweet dessert wine, sweet red wine, and fortified wine. And of course, each of these wine styles has styles within the styles. Honestly, good for dessert wine; she's high maintenance and owns it. 

Let's explore what you need to know about each type. 

Sparkling dessert wine: well, guess you have an idea of what makes this wine special. Apparently, the most technical wine globally, this wine is high maintenance because she goes through two fermentations. The second fermentation is to make the bubbles. 

Lightly-sweet dessert wine: Refreshingly sweet, these white wines are exploding with fruit flavors. There are five types of lightly-sweet wine: Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, Chenin Blanc, and Viognier. 

Richly sweet dessert wine: Made with the highest quality grapes in an unfortified style, there are three ways to make this deliciously sweet drink. 

One is a late harvest, and its name essentially says it all. The longer the grapes are on the vine, the sweeter and more raisinated they become. This results in a concentrated sweetness, and common varieties include Vidal Blanc and Muscat (hello, Moscato). 

Noble rot is another method of creating richly sweet dessert wine. A type of spore, Botrytis cinerea, eats fruits and veggies. Sure, it sounds disgusting and looks disgusting, noble rot adds flavors of ginger, saffron, and honey to sweet wines, especially Sauternes from Bordeaux in France, or Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany (yeah, that one's a mouthful). 

Another way to make richly sweet dessert wine is a straw mat. In this method, grapes lay on straw mats to raisinate before making them into wine. This might be a Vin Santo or a Passito.

The last method of creating richly sweet dessert wine with a high sugar content is called ice wine (or in Germany, eiswein). It is sporadic and costly because it only occurs in off years when a vineyard freezes. Ice wine must be harvested and pressed while grapes are still frozen. 

Sweet red wine: The majority of sweet red wine is made from Italy using "esoteric" grapes. There are six types of sweet red wine Lambrusco, Brachetto d'Acqui, Schiava, Freisa, Recioto Della Valpolicella, and Late-Harvest Red Wines. These aren't your everyday Cabernet Sauvignons. 

Fortified wine: These wines are made when grape brandy is added to a wine. The wine can either be dry or sweet. Fortified wines are highly alcoholic and have a long shelf life. There are four types: Port (tawny port or otherwise), Sherry, Madeira, and Vin Doux Naturel. 

What Is The Difference Between Dessert Wine and Table Wine?

Is it just us, or is table wine an incredibly dull name compared to dessert wine? It's like your sibling getting a super cool name, and you're named after your great-grandma, who had the most common name of her time. 

Table wines are also called 'dry wines' because they do not have very much residual sugar in the finished product. They are pretty much the polar opposite of dessert wines because they are not sweet without that high amount of sugar. 

Is It Sweet?

Move over, Sammi Sweetheart, dessert wine is the sweetest bitch you'll ever meet! Dessert wines are designed to be sweet, hence the name, dessert wine. Dessert wines are designed to be even sweeter than dessert because if they weren't, the wine would taste bitter after you take a bite of dessert. 

When making dessert wines, there are many methods to ensure its sweetness. Remember, in all winemaking; the alcohol comes from the fermentation of sugar. To increase sugar levels, winemakers can add sugar. When sugar is added before fermentation, it is called chaptalization, when sugar is added after fermentation, Sussreserve. Other methods winemakers can use are adding more alcohol before all the sugar is fermented. 

What Does It Taste Like?

Put merely: dessert wines taste like dessert. Dessert wines can vary dramatically in taste, especially when it comes to the different types. But here is a general overview of what each dessert wine is known to taste like. 

Sparkling Dessert Wine: Zippy and light, these wines are typically fruity with flavors of fresh apple, lime, and lemon zest and tend to have higher acidity than some of the others. 

Lightly-sweet dessert wine: As we previously shared, this wine is refreshingly sweet and explodes with fruit flavors. Riesling, a type of lightly-sweet dessert wine from white grapes, is known for its intense fruity aromas of orchard fruit, like apple and pear. These go great with desserts like Crème Brûlée. 

Richly sweet dessert wine: The taste of richly sweet dessert wine greatly varies depending on how the wine was created. Richly sweet dessert wines that are late harvest wines have intense aromas of dried pear, vanilla, and orange. They are rich and highly concentrated. Noble Rot wines, another method of creating richly sweet dessert wine, are known for being incredibly sweet. 

Sweet red wines: Because sweetness is not a trait shared with red wine, these types of wines tend to stand out. Some of these reds even should be chilled for better enjoyment and are known to have a familiar fruit taste. 

Fortified wines: There are many types of fortified wines, and they are based on their unique flavor and production method. The fortification process has given us gems like port wine from Portugal, and often have flavors of dry fruits, like apricot. Generally, all of these types of wine have a distinct sweetness and are often used to flavor other cocktails.