Dessert wines get a bad rap. Something about a wine being “sweet” seems to turn people off. I gather that’s because of the many cheap sweet wines that once flooded the market. Too many sips and headaches from those sickly sweet wines would make anyone turn up their nose at a “dessert” wine. But good dessert wines are some of the best in the world.
First, a few factors can make a dessert wine.
In the vineyard…
- Botrytis: Grapes are left on the vine once they’ve reached maximum ripeness to encourage the development of botrytis, or “noble rot.” This helpful mold then shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugars while maintaining the acid levels. The grapes yeild less juice than dry wines, due to their shriveled and concentrated state. But the result is something spectacular. The concentration of fruit with the good levels of acidity result in a blanced and decadent dessert wine. The most famous example of this is Sauternes.
- Icewine: Grapes are left to freeze! Icewine (or eiswein in Germany) is made by completely ripe grapes being left to freeze on the vine. This process concentrates the sugars, resulting in a beautifully sweet wine. Due to the labor intensity of creating ice wine (hand harvest at the first freeze, small yields, etc), it can be pricy, but the wines are so incredible. A perfect match with ice cream. Examples include Canadian ice wine (Inniskillin), US icewine (though some of these are frozen after harvest) like Joseph Phelps and Pacific Rim, and German icewine.
By the winemakers
- Fortified: Fortified wines are some of the most common and include Sherry & Port. A wine is fortified by adding brandy (or another similar spirit) to a still wine. In the case of port, the brandy is added to halt fermentation, so residual sugar remains and the addition of brandy increases the alcohol level, leaving a sweet wine, high in alcohol content. Sherry receives a dose of spirits after ferementation, so can be dry or sweet. Many other countries make wine in a “port” style, including Australia, United States and South Africa. Muscats from Australia are also fortified, as is Madeira from Portugal.
If you’re looking to find a high-quality (yet affordable) dessert wine, here are my suggestions to do so:
Light bodied: Joseph Phelps Eisrebe (375ML half-bottle) 2009
This is a great example of an icewine style at a great price. Not fortified, this wine shows the purity of fruit from where it came. Balanced, elegant and delicate, this is a great wine for lighter citrus-based desserts or with ice cream.
Medium-bodied: Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat (375ML half-bottle)
Hands down one of our favorites year after yet, the Yalumba Museum Muscat has spice and dried fruit notes, is terribly balanced with a super long finish, and can be enjoyed with chocolate cake, over ice cream or just on its own. Also lasts in the fridge once opened for a month or so!
Full-bodied: Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Port
Such a fun wine! Though not “true” port from Portugal, this wine is made in the same manner with the Zinfandel grape. Since Zinfandel is already jammy and full bodied, imagine what it’s like when fortified! Great on it’s own or, with anything chocolate!