“I like any kind of wine, but it has to be dry.” Perhaps in rebellion against the former White Zinfandel and Blue Nun days of the wine industry, the trend in favor of dry wines has skyrocketed in the past decade. Such vehement opposition against sweet wines exists that dessert wines, some of the most historical, complex, and long-lived wines of the world, are barely on the radar of most wine lovers. But dessert wines shouldn’t be forgotten; they should be used to enhance the after-dinner experience. While some can be enjoyed on their own, dessert wines are best when paired with food, and the act of using the wine to enhance the dessert and vice versa can lead to some pretty mind-blowing combinations.
While many dessert wines exist, there are a few that define the category, ranging from less sweet to more sweet, light to super-boozy, and best for youthful drinking to better when aged for decades. Thus, presented here is the ultimate guide to dessert wines for all tastes and all occasions.
One of the most historically significant categories of wine, fortified wines are made by adding grape spirit (brandy) to a wine either during or after fermentation, depending on whether the winemaker desires the finished wine to be dry or sweet. If a wine is fortified before fermentation is finished, the wine will be sweet, as there will still be sugar left in the wine itself, whereas a wine that is fortified after fermentation will be dry. The technique of fortification really came about during the Age of Exploration, when voyagers would strengthen their wines in order to withstand long ocean voyages (hence why many fortified wines today tend to be quite ageable). Wine drinkers – mostly the English – grew to love the style, so the process stuck. Whether dry or sweet, fortified wines have one thing in common: notably high alcohol.
Sherry is one of the coolest, most versatile dessert wines of the world, but so often wine lovers steer clear of it because it can be a bit intimidating. That’s because Sherry, produced in several different styles in the hot, southern Spanish region of Jerez, has many personalities, not just a singular character. Three grapes may be used for the production of Sherry: Palomino Fino, which accounts for the majority of Sherry production, Pedro Ximénez (aka “PX”), and Moscatel. Sherry is also characterized by its unique solera aging system, in which older barrels of Sherry are topped up with younger wines from the system as wine is bottled from the oldest barrel, eventually leading to a blend of older and younger wines that technically contains wine from every single vintage since the solera system was first created.
While the many categories of Sherry can seem confusing, the easiest way to categorize them is in two ways: dry versus sweet, and oxidative versus non-oxidative. Dry, non-oxidative sherry such a Flor and Manzanilla is protected by a layer of yeast called flor, will have fresh but unique flavors such as almond, tart citrus, and saline, and should be drunk young. Dry, oxidative sherry such as Oloroso takes on a darker brown hue and develops notes of burnt caramel, coffee, and vanilla, making it seem sweet despite its lack of sugar. Then there’s the in-between: dry, semi-oxidative/semi-biological Sherry, such as Amontillado and Palo Cortado, which have characteristics of both styles and have potential to age. Finally, the sweet, oxidative styles: Cream, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez, all of which have significant sweetness, fig-like flavors and, in PX’s case, can age when made well.
Like Sherry, Port also comes in a variety of style categories, but unlike Sherry, Port is always sweet and typically a red wine. Hailing from the terraced vineyards in Portugal’s Douro River Valley, Port is typically made from the local grape Touriga Nacional, along with other local supporting grapes. Though traditionally Port was vinified in the Douro Valley and then aged downriver in the famed Port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, many smaller wineries now choose to age their Port where it is vinified in the Douro. Those who prefer a sweet dessert wine with fresh red fruit flavors should seek out Ruby Ports, which carry a deep ruby-red color and have berry and chocolate flavors. Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port and Vintage Ports fall into this category, though they have much more concentration and complexity and will benefit greatly from bottle age. For those who enjoy nuttier styles of dessert wine, Tawny Port is the way to go; oxidatively aged, it is more amber-hued, with dried fruit, nut, and toffee flavors. Colheita Tawny is the vintage version of this style of Port wine, but while the wine may be aged for quite a long time at the winery, it will not usually benefit from bottle age.
If Madeira were located in Westeros, it would definitely be among the Iron Islands, as it, too, lives by the motto, “What is dead may never die.” This zombie wine, made on the warm island of the same name off the coast of Morocco (but technically belonging to Portugal), is the most ageable of all wines for the simple reason that, essentially, it has already been destroyed. The vinification process for Madeira involves repeated heating and deliberate oxidation, the two processes that typically ruin wine. Made from four core grapes, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, Madeira ranges from drier to sweeter (in order, by grape variety), and a bottle labeled Rainwater is generally a blend of medium sweetness. Madeira is characterized by notes of dried and cooked fruit, nuts, honey, smoke, toffee and much more, as well as sky-high acidity. Many of the oldest bottles of wine still in existence are Madeira’s; they can last for centuries and can be kept open and out of the fridge almost indefinitely.
While Marsala is largely thought of as simple cooking wine, it actually has a long history sitting among the ranks of the world’s “big three” fortified dessert wines: Sherry, Port and Madeira. Marsala is actually the name of the region in which this fortified wine is produced, located around the city of Marsala in the northwestern corner of the island of Sicily. Typically made from white grapes, though ruby versions do exist, the best versions of Marsala are made with the characterful Grillo grape but can be blended with Inzolia and Cataratto as well. Styles of Marsala range from dry to sweet, depending on when the wine is fortified during fermentation and whether or not a cooked grape must called mosto cotto is added, and the wine is perhaps most characterized by the time it spends aging in barrel. This oxidative aging gives Marsala its amber hue, along with complex nutty, caramel-like, and honeyed and dried fruit flavors. Be prepared to spend a little more for the good stuff (read: if it’s around $10, you probably won’t want to drink it!), and look for bottles labeled semi-secco or dolce to ensure that it’s a sweet version.
While uber-sweet, fortified wine may not be the first thought that comes to mind when envisioning the landscape of Australian wine, Rutherglen Muscat holds much historical significance, with many of the region’s producers in their fourth or fifth generation of winemaking. In this hot region of Victoria, about three hours northeast of Melbourne, the reddish-skinned white grape (yes, really!) Muscat Rouge à Pettit’s Grains is left on the vine to gain sugar throughout most of the harvest season. Fortified during fermentation, much of this sugar remains in the wine, which is then aged oxidatively in barrel, creating a rich, brown, lusciously sweet wine with intense flavors: raisin, prunes, burnt caramel, coffee, toasted nuts and more. The youngest Rutherglen Muscat’s are usually no younger than five years, but the best versions can age for decades.
For die-hard, no-exceptions red wine lovers out there, Banyuls is your dessert wine match made in heaven. Made primarily from Grenache in France’s southernmost wine appellation, very close to the Spanish border, Banyuls is reminiscent to young Ruby Port, but with even more of a full-bodied red wine character. Though aged in barrel, Banyuls is decidedly fruit-driven, with concentrated aromas and flavors of baked red berries, prunes and spice, and there is noticeable tannin in the wine as well. Think of a well-structured, super-ripe red wine, add some sugar, and you’ve got Banyuls.
Late-harvested/noble rot wines
Late-harvested wines are exactly what they sound like: wines made from grapes that are left on the vine until later in the harvest season, allowing them to get super-ripe and gain a lot of sugar. Noble rot, or botrytized, wines are a version 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 often adds its own unique flavors as well, such as ginger, orange essence and honey.
Riesling gets a bad rap as a maker of inexpensive, sweet wine, but it’s actually one of the most versatile grapes in the world, making not only bone-dry, enamel-stripping wines, but lusciously-sweet, high-quality, super-expensive wines, as well as everything in between. While Riesling is grown all over the world, its finds its sweet-wine home in Germany, where the legal quality hierarchy for wines, the Pradikat system, is actually based on the amount of sugar in each grape at harvest. Sweet wines range from off-dry (Kabinett and Spatlese) with a small but perceptible amount of sugar and fresh, delicate fruit flavors, to late-harvested versions (Auslese) with more concentration, richer fruit flavors, and a broader mouthfeel, to fully botrytized wines (Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese) with lusciously-sweet, orange blossom-like, honeyed richness. Additionally, the category of Eiswein (ice wine), made from grapes frozen on vines, has as much sugar as botrytized Rieslings but with cleaner fruit flavors.
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.
Many would argue that Sauternes is the world’s greatest sweet wine, but regardless of whether you agree, it’s pure fact that 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 easily-attacked Sémillon grape, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Producers travel through vineyards in this region of Bordeaux many separate times, selectively picking only noble rot-affected grapes as the fungus develops. Though at first glance these shriveled, purple fuzz-covered grapes seem revolting, they transform into an unctuous, lusciously sweet dessert wine that is typically aged in oak before release. Dried fruit, saffron, honey, orange, golden apple, crème brûlée and much more unfold over time in the bottle and the glass, aging for years and years after the vintage.
Who would have thought that one of the greatest sweet wines of the world would come from Hungary? Made from the local Furmint grape, which is high in acidity and very susceptible to botrytis, Tokaji (not to be confused with its region, Tokaj) is best known for its aszú version, made from late-harvested, shriveled, botrytis-affected grapes gathered in containers calledputtony. These uber-sweet, barrel-aged Tokaji Aszú wines are low in alcohol, have a viscous mouthfeel, and are often quite honeyed. There is also a teeny-tiny amount of Tokaji Esszencia produced, which is made only from the syrupy free-run juice that comes from the aszúgrapes. It is possibly the sweetest wine in the world, is incredibly rare, can age for over a century and is typically sold by the teaspoonful.
Late-harvest Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, grown in its many Loire Valley appellations, is another one of those everyman 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 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, however, 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 subregions of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume are even more highly sought-after, and the wines develop golden apple, honey, wool 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.
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.
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 sees quite a bit of barrel aging: between three and eight years in either small oak or (traditionally) 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. Want to try the most traditional Vin Santo pairing? Grab some biscotti!
Recioto Della Valpolicella
In keeping with the famed red wines of this region in the Veneto, 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 percent and will then chill the wine to stop fermentation and leave residual sugar. Dried berry and raisined notes characterize the dense Recioto Della Valpolicella, along with chocolate and vanilla. Fun fact: legend has it that the famed Amarone Della Valpolicella was created when a Recioto producer accidentally let his wine ferment to dryness!
Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based sommelier, wine writer, and consultant. Her work has been featured in Drink Me Magazine, ABC News online, The Daily Meal, and VinePair, among other publications. Courtney is currently a full-time Sommelier at Marta and has spent time working the wine harvests in both Portugal and Bordeaux.