While many dessert wines exist, there are a few that define the category, ranging from less sweet to more sweet, light to alcohol-laden, and best for youthful drinking to better when aged for decades.
In addition to fortified wines, which were discussed on February 22, 2020, there are a variety of offerings that are considered to be great dessert wines.
Late-Harvested / Noble Rot Wines
Late-harvested wines are exactly that, wines that are made from grapes that are left on the vine until late in the harvest season. They are then extremely ripe and contain an abundance of sugar.
Included in this group are ice wines. Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers of ice wines, and about 75% of Canadian ice wine comes from Ontario. As it’s unaffected by noble rot and fermented slowly, ice wines retain many primary characteristics which set them apart from their botrytized counterparts. It is luscious, intensely flavoured, with aromas and flavours of ripe tropical fruits like lychee and pineapple when made with white grapes, although wines made with red varieties can give more concentrated strawberry flavours.
Much like Sauternes, icewine is a perfect match for strong cheeses such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or Parmesan. Milder cheeses aren’t strong enough to stand up to the drink’s lusciousness, but cheese-based desserts such as cheesecake are.
Salty hors d’oeuvres like tapenade or salted nuts enhance the fruity acidity of the wine, while balancing out the high sugar levels.
The high acidity also means you can opt for richer foods like pâtés.
Finally, similar to Riesling, ice wines go well with spicy foods, which are often hard to match with wine. This is because of its higher sugar content. Curries and aromatic Thai dishes which are usually difficult to match would go well with an icewine with pronounced tropical flavours.
Red ice wines, made with Cabernet Franc, shine when paired with richer desserts made with chocolate, which bring out their red fruit flavours.
Noble rot, or botrytized wines are a type of late-harvest wine, but the healthy grapes are actually attacked by a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, which punctures grape skins to dehydrate them and concentrate flavors, sugar and acidity. Botrytis adds its own unique flavors as well, such as hints of ginger, orange and honey.
Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes in the world, making not only bone-dry wines, but lusciously sweet, high-quality ones as well. While Riesling is grown all over the world, the sweet versions of the wine come from Germany.
Sweet wines range from off-dry Kabinett and Spatlese with a small distinguishable amount of sugar and fresh, delicate fruit flavors, to late-harvested Auslese with a higher concentration, richer fruit flavors, and a broader mouthfeel, to fully botrytized Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines with lusciously-sweet, orange blossom-like, honeyed richness. It is an excellent pairing with apple pie, caramelized desserts, tropical fruit, peaches and cream and sweet desserts.
Austria also makes Riesling using its version of the Pradikat system, and Canada is actually producing some delicious ice wine Riesling as well. All these Rieslings tend to be fairly low in alcohol, with the sweetest wines being in the single-digits of alcohol percentage and the double-digits of years to age.
There are those who would argue that Sauternes is the world’s greatest sweet wine. Sauternes is one of history’s most coveted and expensive sweet wines. It is the gold standard when it comes to botrytis-affected wines, made from the Sémillon grape, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Producers selectively pick only noble rot-affected grapes as the fungus develops. These revolting looking grapes transform into a lusciously sweet dessert wine that is typically aged in oak before release. Dried fruit, saffron, honey, orange, golden apple, crème brulee and much more unfold over time in the bottle and the glass, aging for years and years after the vintage.
Originating in Hungary, made from the local Furmint grape, which is high in acidity and very susceptible to botrytis, Tokaji is best known for its aszú version, made from late-harvested, shriveled, botrytis-affected grapes gathered in containers called puttony. These super-sweet, barrel-aged Tokaji Aszú wines are low in alcohol, have a viscous mouthfeel, and are often quite honeyed. There is also a little amount of Tokaji Esszencia produced, which is made only from the syrupy free-run juice that comes from the aszú grapes. It is possibly the sweetest wine in the world, is extremely rare, can age for over a century and is typically sold by the teaspoonful.
If you happen to find yourself in a position to purchase some Tokaji, dessert pairings include roasted pineapple, caramelized apple, dark chocolate and Christmas pudding.
Late-Harvest Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, grown in its many Loire Valley appellations, is another one of those very common grapes, but whether dry or sweet, light or full, still or sparkling, it is always very characteristically Chenin.
Vouvray, perhaps the most famous Loire Valley appellation in France for Chenin, can range from dry to sweet even in this one region; the indications of demi-sec, moelleux, and liquereux will indicate the presence of residual sugar.
Sweet Chenin Blanc reaches its pinnacle in the region of Coteaux du Layon, where grapes are late-harvested in many passes through the vineyard. While producers hope for botrytis, it all depends on vintage, and some years will have more botrytis than others. The sub-regions of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume are even more highly sought-after, and the wines develop golden apple, honey, and orange blossom characteristics. Because of the amount of sugar in these wines, they will continue to develop with age, getting smokier and more interesting over time.
Desserts that pair well with late-harvest Chenin Blanc include fresh strawberries tumbling over shortcake or lemon-meringue pie.
Dried Grape Wines
A technique traditionally used in Italy, Greece, and sometimes Austria, dried grape, or passito, wines are made by purposefully drying healthy grapes after harvest, typically on straw mats or by hanging grape bunches from rafters. This dehydrates the grapes, concentrating the remaining sugar and flavors and creating a sweet wine with clean and often-raisined flavors. The passito process yields less wine than typical vinification does, since the juice is essentially being extracted from raisins, making these wines more expensive than their still-wine counterparts.
Red wines pair well with most desserts or blue cheeses. The whites are best suited with exotic or candied fruits.
Vin Santo Del Chianti
While “holy wine” can be found in several regions of Italy (as well as a version from Greece), this version from the heart of Tuscany is the most famed. Made from Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia grapes that are hung in whole bunches from rafters, Vin Santo del Chianti is barrel-aged between three and eight years in either small oak or traditional chestnut barrels, allowing some of the wine to evaporate and concentrate flavors in the remaining amber-colored wine. The wine is rich and sweet, with golden raisin and dried fruit flavors.
Dessert pairings include Crostata di Frutta, blackberry mini tartlettes, ginger desserts, pumpkin pie, dark chocolate, and nutty desserts like pecan pie.
Recioto Della Valpolicella
In keeping with the famed red wines of this region in the Veneto of Italy, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet red wine made from dried Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Traditionally, grapes are dried on straw mats or in lofts called fruttai, which ensure that air circulates through the grapes during the drying process so that mold does not form. Recioto winemakers will typically allow the wine to ferment until the alcohol content is around 14% and will then chill the wine to stop fermentation and leave residual sugar. Dried berry and raisin notes characterize the dense Recioto della Valpolicella, along with chocolate and vanilla.
Desserts containing chocolate, coffee, or dried fruit such as Black Forest cake or tiramisu pair well with the Valpolicella. But where Recioto truly stands out is with ripened cow’s milk cheeses, becoming unexpectedly delicious with blue-veined cheese served with macerated fruit.
I must admit that prior to researching dessert wines there are a number of them that I had never even heard of, let alone tried. The wines that are most easily found in local liquor stores will include late harvest wines, fortified wines, and Canadian ice wines. However, if I ever get the opportunity to travel to France and Italy, there are a few selections that I will be on the hunt for.