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What is dessert wine and how is it made?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Generally speaking, dessert wine lives up to its name as a lusciously sweet tipple enjoyed with dessert. If you’re looking to add dessert wines to your dinner menu, here are a few quick pointers to get you started.

Italian dessert wine with cantuccini

What’s the difference between table wine and dessert wine?

Table wines are dry wines, meaning that you typically cannot taste any sweetness in them. They come in your standard 750 ml bottle and can be made from any one of a number of grapes – or even blends of grapes. Dry table wine has under 5 grams of residual sugar per liter.

What Is Dessert wine?

Dessert wines are noticeably sweet with significant levels of residual sugar thanks to leftover grape juice that didn’t get fully fermented by yeast during the winemaking process. A dessert wine can have anywhere from 45 grams of residual sugar per liter up to a mind blowing 220 grams of residual sugar per liter. That’s the equivalent of about 1 cup of sugar. Most dessert wines will come in dainty 375 ml bottles. Don’t let the bottle size fool you, these wines are flavor powerhouses.

Dessert Wine Types

As with dry wines, there’s different kinds of sweet dessert wines. Here’s a quick and delicious dessert wine guide:

Vin Santo dessert wine
  • Fortified Wines: Port (red and white) is made by stopping fermentation after a short period of time by adding neutral grape spirit. High alcohol levels kill off the yeast, leaving unfermented grape juice behind. Port producers can make fresh black and red fruit-forward ruby ports, or aged ports that showcase chocolaty nuttiness.

  • Ice Wine: The showcase wine of Canada and other cold climes, ice wine (or Eiswein in Germany) depends on precise weather conditions to freeze the grapes on the vine and concentrate sugar, acid, and flavor. These crisp wines are made from a single grape variety, typically Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, or Riesling. Served chilled, they’re typified by zingy acidity and bright citrus fruits and floral notes that balance out their sweetness.

  • Vin Santo: The Italian dessert wine Vin Santo is typically made in a viscous, luscious style from dried grapes that have concentrated flavors. Because of the high sugar level, these wines can take years to fully ferment. Pay close attention to alcohol level, as dry styles do exist. Look for wines with around 14% ABV or less for a dessert style of Vin Santo.

  • Sauternes: Perhaps the most famous French dessert wine, Sauternes blends together the richness of Semillon, the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc, and the floral notes of Muscadelle to create honeyed, full-bodied wines with layers of candied hazelnut and apricot.

Quick Tips for Dessert Wine Pairing

Mistela wine with a dessert pastry

Pairing dessert wines may seem easy because they should logically go with your dessert course. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. The wine should always be sweeter than the dish you are serving. Otherwise, the wine can come across as bitter and unpleasant.

  2. As a general rule, the white dessert wines will pair well with fruit and cream-based dishes. For example, ice wine, Vin Santo, and Sauternes will match beautifully with fruit tarts or vanilla custards. Red dessert wines, like Port, pair best with chocolate-based dishes: chocolate mousse or chocolate tortes.

  3. You can go sweet, but you can also go savory. A classic French pairing is Sauternes with foie gras.

  4. Enjoy dessert wines as dessert. These wines sing alone, and can stand in the place of a traditional dessert at the end of any meal. Consider serving them as the star of your final course.

Drink More Dessert Wine

Dessert wines have fallen out of fashion over the centuries, but at one point in history commanded prices above the top growths of Bordeaux. If you’re a wine lover looking to infuse a unique indulgence into your lifestyle, try uncorking a few dessert wines. Their expressive profile range will leave your mouth watering for more.

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.