Dessert wines are often misunderstood due to their intense sweetness and high alcohol content, but they offer a unique and delightful experience. This blog post explores dessert wines, focusing on late harvest wines, ice wines, Port, and Noble Rot dessert wines. It explains the terminology associated with dessert wines and suggests pairing options, making it a must-read for anyone looking to expand their wine palate and discover the world of sweet wines.
We’ve always thought dessert wines to be terribly misunderstood. Often the very reason to love a dessert wine – because of their high sugar content and syrup-like-sweetness – is the same reason why people don’t care for them. No doubt, dessert wines are an intense experience. The best dessert wines are truly more of everything that you already expect from wine: they’re richer, denser, more viscous, and have a much higher alcohol content than your average table wine. Because of this intensity, they’re usually served in much smaller “sipping” glasses like these or these.
If you’re just learning to enjoy dessert wines, here’s a sure-fire way to get your journey started.
While each kind of dessert wine (we’ll get into that in a minute,) pairs well with its own sweet flavor profile, we think that the true revelation of dessert wines occurs when you pair them with a savory bite of a hard, nutty cheese or a spicy slice of salami. The nuanced taste experience that the savory delivers against the sweet when properly paired is transformative. Once you’ve experienced it, you are on your way to falling in love with dessert wines.
The Language of Dessert Wines
If it’s a dessert wine, you will see specific words on the label, including:
If it’s moderately sweet, you will see labels that announce:
Dessert Wine Types & Food Pairings
These are dessert wines made from grapes that have been left on the vine for an extended period of time, allowing them to naturally develop high sugar levels. (Think about the sweetness of a fresh grape vs. a raisin.) This extra-sweet fruit could give off the taste of apricot, peach, nectarine, pineapple, or mango…but in all cases it will smell and taste rich and jammy rather than light and fresh.
What we especially love about Late Harvest wines is that they often retain a balancing acidity. This acidity makes a Late Harvest wine less cloying and more diverse in both taste and mouthfeel.
A Late Harvest wine will pair so beautifully with a foie gras or a roasted duck. If you’re sticking to the dessert course, we recommend you try pairing your Late Harvest wine with desserts that feature caramel flavors like créme brûlee, caramel flan, or sticky toffee pudding.
Ice wines just sound cool, don’t they!? Literally and figuratively. Ice wines are mostly white dessert wines and produced from grapes that were left to freeze on the vine. Once they’ve frozen, they’re harvested and pressed before they thaw again. This frozen fruit is intensely sweet and pronounced – ranging from rich and honeyed to syrupy and lush. Despite their high sugar content, Ice Wines – like late harvest wines – maintain a counterbalance of acidity. They’re very luxurious and velvety on the palate – with a long, lingering finish. Ice wines are served chilled and are a knock-out accompaniment with fruit tarts or cheesecake.
Ice wines (also known as Eiswein) come from the coolest climates. Think: Canada, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Port is a fortified wine – meaning that it has been “fortified” with a distilled spirit – usually brandy – during the fermentation process. Think of it as two forms of alcohol in one…which means that it has a very high alcohol content. Similar to a sparkling wine called Champagne only when the wine is from the famous Champagne region of France, Port is a fortified wine that originates from the Douro Valley in Portugal. The fermentation stops when the brandy is added, which leaves residual sugar in the wine making it very sweet. Younger ruby Ports are known for their black and red fruit flavors while aged ports show off the characteristics of dried fruit like figs, raisins, and prunes. Ports are red dessert wines that pair perfectly with after-dinner nibbles such as nuts, fine dark chocolate, or nearly any kind of cheese.
It doesn’t sound appetizing, (even though they tried to throw the word “noble” in to give the name a lift,) but Noble Rot is a type of beneficial mold spore called Botrytis cinerea that eats fruits and vegetables. When a grape has been exposed to Noble Rot, the resulting dessert wines take on the unique flavors of saffron, honey, and ginger. There are lots of different kinds of Noble Rot dessert wines from various growing regions. Perhaps the most well-known dessert wine that benefits from Noble Rot is Sauternes from Bordeaux, France. You might also be familiar with Tokaji Aszú from Hungary, or Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany.
Including Dessert wines in your wine-lover’s repertoire is a rich and exciting way to explore both food and wine from a fresh point of view. Next time you find yourself waving away the dessert menu, consider a glass of dessert wine instead. Many sommeliers are not-so-secretly very passionate about dessert wines and a whole new level of conversation will open up to you as soon as you order one!