Every Great Meal Should be Paired with a Dessert Wine

Dessert wines complement great company, a premium cigar and a meal that can be a simple as a burger and fries or the latest gastronomical delicacy you selected from Julia Child’s last cookbook.

Dessert Wine Basics for the Novice or the Gourmand

Desert wines are made using extra sweet wine grapes with a fermentation process that is stopped prior to the yeast turning all of the grapes into 100% alcohol. A winemaker can stop the fermentation process with two basic methods: super cooling the wine grapes or adding brandy to fortify the wine.

You have hundreds of great desert wines to choose from and in this post we won’t try to review all, we’ll just concentrate on the five primary types of desert wines that can be paired with good food and a premium cigar for that after dinner smoke.

Sparkling Wines are a Great Complement to a Fine Meal

If you like bubbles in your wine and a touch of acidity then sparkling wines are a great choice. You’ll notice as you select and sample different brands the grape varieties have a sweeter taste than others – a Demi-Sec traditional champagne (blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) will always taste less sweet than a Moscato, although both have equal amounts of sugar.

Terms you should be familiar with:

  • Amabile: means slightly less sweet in Italian
  • Demi-Sec: off dry in French
  • Sem-Secco: off dry in Italian
  • Doux: sweet in French
  • Dolce/Dulce: sweet in Italian and Spanish
  • Moelleux: generally “sweet” in French
  • Richly Sweet Wines are Non Fortified

Richly sweet wines are made with superior quality grapes and don’t use Brandy or gognac for fortification. A lot of the brands are aged over 50 years to ensure the sweetness and acidity are balanced and the wine tastes great.

These wines include some great brands from around the world with a rich sense of history: Hungarian Tokaji which was a family favorite by the Tsars of Russia; South African Constantia which has always been popular with of the Dutch and English and French Sauternes which has been a hit here in the U.S. since the late 1800’s.

Most Richly Sweet wines are produced using these methods:

Late Harvest: means the grapes are harvested late in the season, when the grapes are sweeter, generating a wine that has a higher element of alcohol. In the French Alsac region this style is referred to as Vendage Tardive and in Deutchland its call Spatlese.

Noble Rot: is really a type of spore (botrytis cinerea0 that rots vegetables and fruit. It may sound nasty and disgusting; but this process adds a unique rich flavor to a desert wine with a hint of ginger and honey. Making this type of dessert wine is a labor intensive, painstaking process, contrary to what many think.

Common Wines Made from Noble Rot

  • Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac and Monbazillac
    are French Appellations in and around Bordeaux that use Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes to make a golden-hued sweet wine.
  • Tokajiis a Hungarian wine made with botrytis Furmint grapes that are rated in different levels of sugar, from 5-6 Puttonyos (with a minimum of 120 grams residual sugar; the same level as cola).
  • Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling the German Pradikat system (a sweetness labeling system), Auslese is the first level with a higher proportion of botrytis-affected grapes. Besides being sweeter than the lower level ‘QbA’ and ‘Kabinett’ German Rieslings, they also tend to have higher alcohol.

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Straw Mat Process: the grapes are place on straw mats to raisinate before being made into wine.

Italian Passito is a straw wine created by blending several types of grapes, usually red and white. Passito di Pantelleria is Muscat-based and Caluso Passito is made with the rare grape Erbaluce from the Piedmont region.

Italain Vin Santo is made with the straw process using Trebbiana and Malvasia grapes, imparting a rich nutty flavor with hints of a date flavor.

Greece also produces Vinsanto desert wine, made with high-acid white Assyrtiko grapes and Samos is a sweet wine made from Muscat grapes; and Commandaria is a sweet wine from Cyprus that dates back to 800 B.C.E.

German Strohwein/Austrian Schilfwein are increasingly rare sweet wines made from Muscat and Zweigelt grapes in Austria and Germany.

French Vin de Paillem from the Jura region of France, which is adjacent to the alps, these Vin de Paille are produced using Chardonnay and ancient Sauvignon grapes.

Ice Wines are a Freak of Nature but What a Treat!

Ice wine is a type of desert wine made by a rare freak of nature: it only happens when the vineyard freezes while the grapes are on the vines and the grapes have to be harvested and pressed while frozen.

The wine grapes are usually a Riesling or Vidal grape, although you can find ice wine made using a Cabernet Franc. Ice wines have a unique taste dissimilar from most desert wines. Imparting a rich honeyed taste that is similar to a wine made via noble rot.

You’ll find ice wines made in many countries, but the best usually come from Germany or Switzerland due to weather conditions and a tradition of making ice wine for centuries.

Sweet Red Wines are Flavor Packed and Hearty

Unfortunately sweet red wines have been declining in popularity for years due to their reputation of being a mass-produced “cheap desert wine” for neophytes. But, don’t let this deter you from selecting a red desert wine, especially if you are having a hearty full flavored, rich meal featuring meat or pork.

Some of our favorite red desert wines include:

  • Late Harvest Red Winess: many are made here in the US made with Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Malbec and Petite Sirah grapes.
  • Lambrusco: an Italian bubbly wine available in both dry and sweet styles. Since it’s a sparkling wine, it will have a yeasty undertone along with raspberry and blueberry flavors. Sweet versions are labeled as “Amabile” and “Dulce”.
  • Brachetto d’Acqui: a bubbly red or rosé wine made with Brachetto grapes from the Piedmont region, famous for its floral and strawberry aromas as well as its affinity to pairing with cured meats.
  • Schiava: a really are variety from the Alto-Adige region in northern Italy, smelling sweetly of raspberry and cotton candy; it’s a really unique type of desert wine that goes with a great meal when the entre is fish, chicken or even pasta.
  • Recioto della Valpolicella: is a very common type of red desert wine, with a traditional lush bold rich taste.

dessert wines

Ignore the Reputation of Fortified Wines

Fortified wines don’t deserve their poor reputation as a cheap way to get a wine or alcohol buzz. Yes, they are fortified, made when grape brandy is added to a wine that can be sweet or dry and most have a higher alcohol content (17-20%) with a longer shelf life, which can be desirable. But, some of the best desert wines are fortified “reds,” including Port.

Common high quality fermented wines include: Sherry, Port, and Madeira. Try pairing dense chocolate desserts with a Port such as Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve, ($22, at most liquor stores).

Port wines are made in the Northern part of Portugal along the Duouro river, using dozens of traditional grapes, including some of the most famous: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tint Roriz.

The grapes are collected and fermented together in open tanks where the grapes are stomped on a daily basis as the wine begins to ferment. When the wine has completed fermentation, the wine is then strained and blended with a more neutral grape to balance out the flavor, stopping fermentation and creating a fortified wine.

Ruby & Crusted Port (very sweet): an introductory style of Port wine that tastes of freshly minted port and is much less sweet than Tawny Port.

Vintage & LBV Port (sweet): LBV and Vintage Port are made in the same style but LBV are designed to be enjoyed in their youth (due to the type of cork en) and vintage Ports are meant to be aged about 20-50 years before drinking.

Tawny Port (very/very sweet): is aged in in large wooden casks and smaller wooden barrels. The longer the Tawny Port ages, the more nutty and figgy it becomes and a 30-50 year old aged tawny port is optimum.

Most fortified dessert wines are made by adding alcohol to still wine during the fermentation process. The addition of alcohol stops fermentation by killing the yeast, leaving behind residual, unfermented sugar from the grapes. 

The result is a sweet wine with an alcohol content of 15 to 20 percent. Port is a popular fortified dessert wine with a deep red color and rich, ripe flavors of dark berries, plums, and spices.

Late Harvest Wines Should be on Your Short Must Taste List

Late Harvest Dessert Wines are made from grapes (most often Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer varieties) that have been left on the vine until they are extremely mature (ripe and sweet). During the actual fermentation process, the yeast is used to convert the extra sweet juice into alcohol by dying off before it can process all the sugar, resulting in a much sweeter wine.

Riesling is a particularly good choice for a late harvest wine, as the grape’s naturally high acidity keeps the wine from being cloyingly sweet. It provides a crisp and refreshing compliment to desserts like apple pie and crème Brule, but sweet enough to finish a meal as dessert itself.

You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to get a decent desert wine, as we touched on earlier, you can pick up an under $25 desert wine starting with Grahams Six Grapes, which can be found at virtually any grocery store. It’s a great wine to pair with an after dinner cigar too!!