There are different definitions for dessert wines depending on where you live in the world, but generally speaking a dessert wine is one that is sweet, full of flavor, thicker, richer and slightly stronger than a dinner or table wine. Dessert wines are either late harvest wines or fortified wines.
Because the grapes in most dessert wines are picked later in the harvest period, more of the residual sugars are preserved. A dry wine is one that has less than 1 percent residual sugar, while a dessert wine, by comparison, usually has anywhere from 3 percent to 28 percent.
Dessert wines tend to come in smaller bottles and are served at 2 ounces per pour. And, in some cases, extra spirits are added to raise the alcohol content and these are known as fortified wines. Some of the world's great fortified wines include Madeira, Vermouth, Marsala, Sherry, Cream Sherry, and Port.
Like dinner wines, white dessert wines are generally served chilled, while red dessert wine are served at room temperature or only slightly chilled. Dessert wines are especially good with fresh bakery sweets and fruits. But as a general rule, a dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dessert with which it is served.
Ice wines are wines made from the grapes picked on the vine when iced over. (Check out ice wine for more information how this wine style is made).
These wines tend to be very sweet and pour like syrup, and are sometimes known as "liquid gold" because of their color and cost. The grape varieties that are most often used in this wine include Vidal and Riesling.
Icewine's syrupy sweetness is balanced by high acidity, leaving a "clean" or "crisp" taste. Its flavors are generally compared to light-flesh fruits, including pear, peach, apple and tropical fruits, and sometimes to hazelnuts.
Good pairings for ice wine include the fruits listed above as well as fruity desserts made from the same, such as a warm pear crisp. Ice wines are also suggested to be paired with nutty and caramel-flavoured desserts.
Port is a fortified wine -- a low-alcohol, sweet wine that has a spirit of some sort (usually brandy) added to increase its alcohol content (usually 18 to 19 percent).
Port can be made from any grape, but historically comes from varieties from Spain and Portugal.
There are two types of port: Tawny and Ruby. Tawny port is made using a solera process, where the wine evaporates in the barrel and oxidizes. This process gives the wine a golden brown color and adds a "nutty" characteristic. Ruby port is the least expensive and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation, it is aged for three years inside large oak vats to prevent excessive oxidation, preserving the rich red color and bright, fruity flavors.
Vintage Ports are aged for a long periods of time in the bottle, and are usually spicy and full of deep, dark grape flavors.
All ports pair nicely with fruity desserts (including pumpkin pie and cobblers) and rich, creamy desserts (such as cheesecake and crème brûlée). Tawny ports, because of their nutty flavor and smooth texture, tend to pair well with milk chocolate, while vintage ports pair well with dark chocolate.
Sauternes and Barsac
"Noble rot” refers to a fungus known as botrytis cinerea that attacks grapes left on the vine and causes a concentration of sweetness beyond that of normal wine grapes. The result is the strong, sweet, French dessert wine known as Sauternes, from the Sauternes region of France, and Barsac, from the nearby enclave Barsac.
These wines, Sauternes in particular, can last a very long time and are rich and powerful and feature flavors like tropical fruit, honey, butterscotch, caramel and cream.
Food writers often suggest pairing these wines with fruit and cheese, particularly the classic pairing of Sauternes with blue cheese, such as Roquefort. Other pairings suggested are tropical fruit desserts, and creamy desserts (like cream pie or crème brûlée).
Madeira, made on the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal, can age as long as a good port. The winemakers subject the wine to a high temperature for a period of several months in buildings called estufas. This process is meant to duplicate the effect of the long sea voyage of the aging barrels through tropical climates.
Madeira was originally unfortified, but the addition of spirits increased its ability to survive long voyages. These wines have a very distinctive hazelnut floral aroma to them. They age well and frequently taste best when they have been aged for 50 to 100 years.
Madeira pairs wonderfully with cheese, and works great as a pre-dinner sipping wine. Madeiras can range from dry to sweet and tend to feature flavours of nuts, brown sugar, and dried fruits.