While I like to encourage people to break out of the norm when it comes to trying wines throughout the year, with the holidays now upon us, this is often a good time to bring out a nice Port or dessert wine. Get to know a little about some of the sweet wines that are out there.
As the term implies, dessert wines are very sweet wines and typically are served with or by themselves as ‘dessert’. They are usually made from late harvest grapes, so they have had longer “hang time” ripening on the vine to get sweeter. Dessert wines are often made from grapes that have the fungus Botrytis cinerea which is also called Noble Rot. Don’t worry, this the good type of fungus which causes the water in the grape to evaporate, giving a sweeter, more intense flavor to the grapes. Dessert wines frequently have flavors such as honey, caramel, apricot, and peach.
Dessert wines go well with sweet desserts, as well as more subtle desserts such as fresh fruit. It is usually best to serve dessert wines at room temperature, because cooling them may hamper the subtleties of the flavor.
Nearly every wine-growing region has its own dessert wine. Here are some of the most common dessert wines.
Sauternes is a sweet, fruit-flavored wine containing hints of pineapple, apricot, and peach with a creamy texture. This is the most famous of the dessert wines. It is often used as a benchmark for all other sweet wines. It comes from the Bordeaux region in France.
Eiswein has a concentrated flavor, with high acidity. This wine comes from Germany, and the name means “ice wine.” The wine is made by allowing grapes to ripen on the vine until they are frozen by autumn or winter temperatures. They then press the frozen grapes, and discard the frozen water, leaving behind a very concentrated syrup, which is then made into wine.
Beerenauslese and Trodtenbeerenauslese wines are low alcohol wines with lush, fruit flavors. These are considered some of Germany’s best wines. The dessert wine is made with the assistance of the noble rot. In Germany, the weather conditions are rarely good long enough to make these wines, so they are usually very expensive.
Tokay/Tokaji is a sweet white wine made in the Tokay region of Hungary and can rival the best French wines. It is made from grapes with the botrytis rot. Often best on its own, but can be served with fruit.
Late Harvest is the name many American wine producers call their dessert wines. Despite the name, they are often also enhanced by botrytis.
Vin Santo is a rather unique dessert wine, with a sweet, almond-like flavor. It is made in Tuscany by harvesting grapes and then keeping them in a warm area while they dehydrate and concentrate their flavor. They are then pressed into wine.
Fortified wines are wines that have had alcohol added to them. The alcohol that is added is usually brandy (which is wine-based). Fortified wines can be sweet or dry. Dry fortified wines are often served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Sweet fortified wines can double as dessert wines.
Some fortified wines are used in cooking. They can add a very distinctive flavor to a dish. They do tend to have fairly strong flavors though, so be careful when using them in the kitchen. If you aren’t sure how much to add, start out one tablespoon at a time, tasting after each spoonful. Otherwise, it is easy to add too much and overpower the flavor of the dish.
Like most other wines, fortified wines originated in Europe with the most noteworthy being Port wine from Portugal and Sherry from Spain. Although these wines have been successfully made in other countries, especially America and Australia, the originals are normally considered the best. The following are the major kinds of fortified wines.
Madeira ranges in variety from very dry, such as Malmsey, to very sweet, such as Rainwater. The wine originates from the island of Madeira, which is part of Portugal. This wine is heated during the fermentation process and can be various hues of golden color.
Marsala is from Italy and is a very well-known fortified wine. It also has both dry and sweet varieties. The dry varieties are usually used in cooking savory food, such as Chicken Marsala. The sweet types of Marsala are often used in Italian desserts.
Port is a sweet wine, traditionally served after dinner (and for my mom, with chocolate around the holidays!). It originated in Portugal, where it comes in many types, most of them sweet. It is fortified with brandy.
Sherry is a versatile wine, ranging widely in color and sweetness. It can be incredibly dry, very sweet or anything in between. It originated in Spain.
Vin Doux Naturel is a fortified wine from southern France. This wine is made from naturally very sweet grapes and is always a sweet wine, usually served as a dessert wine.