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Typically served with, or as a dessert itself, dessert wines are listed among the most highly esteemed and expensive wines in the world.

Poached pear in red wine sauce paired with late harvest muscat wine

A dessert wine is a style of wine that has a high level of natural sweetness and alcohol content. The wines are usually made with highly aromatic and high acid grapes in order to counterbalance the sweetness and complexity.

Dessert wines can be red, white, or rosé, and can range from being mildly sweet to sticky sugar-bomb. Some are even age-worthy.

But how do dessert wines get so sweet?

Like other fruits, ripe grapes contain sugar, most of which gets converted into alcohol during the fermentation process. Any sugar that is left behind after fermentation is called residual sugar (RS). Depending on the amount of residual sugar, the wine may taste dry, off-dry, medium, sweet, or very sweet.

Adding sugar to sweeten the wine is forbidden in the making of dessert wines. Instead, winemakers use various other methods to naturally achieve the sweetness levels in a dessert wine.

Here are some of the common types of dessert wine:



Over ripened grapes give the wine its sweetness

Grapes intended for making dessert wines are left on the vine to over ripen, sometimes to even shrivel, and are harvested long after the usual season. This process naturally increases the sugar content and aromatics in the grapes, and the resulting wine is called late harvest wine.

Though any grape can be harvested late, some varieties are known to produce exceptionally high-quality late-harvest wines.

Examples of late harvest wine:

These are some of the common grapes that are used to make late harvest wines

  • Riesling

  • Chenin Blanc

  • Muscat

  • Sémillon

  • Sauvignon Blanc

  • Gewürztraminer

  • Pinot Gris

How to identify these wines:

Look for terms like “Late-Harvest”, “Vendange Tardive” from France, “Spätlese” (meaning late harvest) and “Auslese” (meaning select harvest) from Germany on the wine label.



The wine is a result of a fungus growing on ripe grapes

Noble Rot wines are scrumptiously sweet and complex, known for some of the world’s most famous dessert wines. In order to produce these high-quality dessert wines, vintners allow the healthy, ripe grapes on the vine to get infected by a mold (fungus) called Botrytis Cinerea (a.k.a. Noble rot). The fungus weakens the grape skins causing them to dehydrate, and concentrate the flavors, sugar, and acidity. In addition, the mold imparts its own unique flavors to the wine.

But making noble rot wines is challenging for multiple reasons. First, conditions that help in the growth of Botrytis are found in very few winegrowing regions in the world, and cannot be relied on to occur every year.

Second, the mold does not affect all the grapes evenly, which means that several rounds need to be made to identify the appropriate grapes and handpick them to make wine. Third, the entire process to make noble rot wine is long, labor-intensive, and complex.

Examples of noble rot wine:

  • Tokaji Aszú (3-6 Puttonyos) from Hungary (mostly Furmint)

  • Sauternes and Barsac from Bordeaux from France (made with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc)

  • Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux du Layon from Loire Valley, France (made with Chenin Blanc)

  • Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) from Germany (typically Riesling)

How to identify these wines:

Look for terms like “Botrytis”, “Noble Rot”, “Noble Late Harvest” in addition to the name of the noble rot wines mentioned above.



An ancient practice in warm climate regions to make dessert wines

Making wines from dried grapes, or passito is a centuries-old technique that started in ancient Greece and is still practiced today. There is more than one way to dry the healthy grape and concentrate the sugar content naturally: leaving them to raisin on the vine, or placing picked bunches on a straw mat in the sun, or by hanging grape bunches from rafters in a warehouse, or by placing the bunches well separated into small wooden boxes.

This process yields less wine as the juice is essentially extracted from raisins. Also, these wines are labor-intensive to make. As a result, such dessert wines are more expensive than their still-wine counterparts.

Examples of ‘straw’ or ‘raisin’ wine:

  • Vin Santo from Tuscany, Italy

  • Recioto della Valpolicella and Recioto di Soave from Veneto, Italy

  • Vin de Paille from Jura, France

  • Vinsanto from Santorini, Greece

  • Commandaria from Cyprus

  • Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel Sherry from Andalusia, Spain

How to identify these wines:

Wine labels clearly mention the name of the dried grape wine (as mentioned above) along with other necessary information.



A dessert wine made from frozen grapes in frosty climate regions

Ice wine (or Eiswein in German) is probably one of the hardest wines to make. Grapes are frozen while still on the vine and harvested before sunrise during the winter months when the temperate is below -7°C or -8ºC, and vineyards are blanketed in a thick layer of snow.

As the sugar in the grapes does not freeze, the icy grapes can be quickly pressed to produce a viscous sugar-liquid, which is then fermented to make dessert wine.

It is important to note that ice wine production is limited to a handful of countries where temperatures consistently drop to such icy lows. Canada is the largest producer of ice wine followed by Germany (produces some of the most expensive Eisweins), Austria, US, and Japan. More recently, China has also started producing ice wines.

A combination of risk, the labor-intensive winemaking process, and government regulations make it difficult to find a cheap ice wine.

In some countries, however, wineries are permitted to freeze the grapes artificially after harvest. But such wines can’t be legally called ice wine. Instead, they are labeled as ‘iced wine’ or simply ‘dessert wine’.

Examples of ice wine:

Typically, Vidal Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Franc grapes are used for making ice wines. But wineries are now experimenting with other grape varieties like Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Merlot.

How to identify these wines:

Look for terms like “Ice wine” or “Eiswein” mentioned on the wine label.



The popular technique of adding alcohol to wine

Fortified wine is a wine that has alcohol added to it. Unlike other wines where alcohol is produced as a result of fermentation itself, these wines have extra alcohol added in the form of grape brandy (or neutral spirit). This process is called fortification, and it does two things: it increases the alcohol level in the wine, and stops the yeast from eating all the sugar (fermentation). As a result, the final wine is higher in alcohol and sweeter than standard wines.

Neutral spirit can be added either during the fermentation or after the fermentation is complete. While the former process will give a delicious sweet fortified wine, like Port wine, the latter will result in a dry fortified wine, like Sherry. Interestingly, Sherry can be made into a sweet style too. Here, winemakers fortify and sweeten the wine (with naturally sweet Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel wines) after fermentation is over.

There is a broad spectrum of fortified wines but most can be categorized as dessert wines.

Examples of fortified wine:

  • Port wine: Ruby Port, Vintage Port, LBV Port and Tawny Port from Duoro Valley, Portugal

  • Vin Doux Naturel wine (Muscat de Beaumes de Venise & Muscat de Rivesaltes from France; Rutherglen Muscat from Australia)

  • Pale Cream and Cream Sherry from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

  • Madeira from Portugal (Bual and Malmsey)

How to identify these wines:

The name of the fortified wine (as mentioned above) along with other necessary information is clearly mentioned on the wine labels.

So, if you have not had a dessert wine yet, give it a go. Find a style that you prefer and enjoy it along with your favorite dessert. Or, skip the dessert and end the meal with a glass of late harvest, Sauternes, Vin Santo, or Port.

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