Savor the Finish: A Guide to Dessert Wines
A Premium Wine Wanderings Newsletter
Spring brings with it the celebrations of graduation, Mother’s Day, birthdays, and weddings. A dessert course can be a highlight and focal point of such festivities. As we are now able to gather together in our small groups in 2021, let’s make sure that a perfectly paired dessert and dessert wine will be the centerpiece of these important and happy occasions.
What is Dessert Wine? How are They Served?
A dessert wine is traditionally served specifically at the end of a meal with a fruit and cheese platter or a sweet offering such as cake, pie, or pudding. Broadly, any wine that is served with dessert is called a dessert wine or, as they say in the UK, a “pudding wine.” Dessert wines are customarily served in small glasses and savored much like you would savor a small serving of a single-malt Scotch. Dessert wines can have both lower and higher alcohol content than dry wines, and they may be fortified with grape spirits. Often you can purchase dessert wines in ½ bottles or 375 ml.
Where are Dessert Wines Made?
Dessert wines come from many regions of the world: Portugal (Port and Madeira wines), France (Sauternes, Demi-Sec Champagne, and Vin Doux Naturel wines like Muscat de Rivesaltes), California and other US wine regions (Far Niente Dolce White wine or Chateau Ste. Michelle Select Harvest Reisling), Germany (Icewine and the TBA and BA wines*), Australia (for instance the Muscats of Rutherglen), Italy (Moscato d’Asti and Vin Santo wines), Canada and New York Finger Lakes (Icewine), South Africa (Constantia wine) and….
Hungary (Tokaji – loved by the Russian Tzars), and Cyprus (Commandaria wine – called “Nectar of the Gods.”)
3 Major Categories of Dessert Wines
Sparkling Dessert Wine – Examples: Moscato d’Asti and Demi-Sec (sweeter) Champagne.
Moscato d’Asti is a lighter alcohol example of a dessert wine. At 10% ABV** this fizzy wine with its fragrant floral and peach aromas makes you think it is sweeter than it is. Moscato d’Asti from Italy is a perfect wine for a spring picnic dessert like peach pie or ice cream. Champagnes come in a full range of dry and sweetness styles. Sweet Champagnes are labeled demi-sec and Doux. See A Champagne Primer in: Champagne – a Taste and Tour of History, February 13, 2021Wine Wanderings. A wedding or birthday toast is the perfect occasion to serve a demi-sec Champagne along with a sweet dessert.
Richly Sweet Dessert Wine– Examples: Sauternes and Icewine.
One of most expensive wines in the world is Chateau d’Yquem, a Bordeaux Sauternes dessert wine. An 1811 vintage bottle of this premier cru Supérieur-ranked wine sold for $117,000 at auction making it the “World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.” Chateau d’Yquem is known for its exceptional longevity, and more current vintages like 2016 priced at $200- $300 for a half-bottle and rating 95-99 points. Of course, more affordable Sauternes are available everywhere. See Recommended Dessert Wines below. The creme brûlée and honeyed notes of this wine are a perfect match for cheesecake and custards. The grapes that make up this wine (75% Semillion, 25% Sauvignon) have a sugar strength coming from the “noble rot” that concentrates the sugar and shrivels the grapes on the vine.
Icewine benefits from sugar concentration, as its grapes have been frozen on the vine. This freezing process removes much of the water in the grapes, thus concentrating the sugar resulting in a luscious dessert wine. Many Canadian producers like Inniskillin make fabulous Icewine. New York Finger Lakes wineries also produces many brands of Icewine.
Fortified Dessert Wines – Examples: Port Wine and Madeira
Port wines are traditionally made near the Oporto area of Portugal along the Douro River. Several styles of port wine like Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage Port are produced. During fermentation a grape spirit (70% ABV**) is added to the fermenting “must” (the fermenting grapes, juice, skin, yeast) fortifying the wine, and arresting further fermentation. A perfect pairing for a Tawny port with its nutty, dried apricot and spiced toffee aromatics is a regional Portuguese salted almond cake or caramel-covered cheesecake. Ruby Ports are ideal with a dark chocolate dessert, a berry pie, or a Stilton, Roquefort, or Gorgonzola cheese tray.
Madeira wine was loved by the American Founding Fathers as discussed in Wine and the Presidents: Try These 3 Presidential Wine Selections in the May 9th 2021 edition of Wine Wanderings. It is produced on Portugal’s island of Madeira, and produced in five styles. The sweetest style is Madeira Malmsey. The current production method for making Madeira mimics how the heat and turbulence of an ocean voyage (as in the 1700’s) would act on changing the wine. Pair the brown sugar, walnut, orange peel, and caramel flavors of a Madeira Malmsey with a toffee pudding, pumpkin pie, or chocolate truffle dessert.
Dessert Wine Popularity
With the popularity of dry wines, many wonder if sweet dessert wines will sustain their past fame. Actually, the market is still growing for dessert wine, especially in North America and Asia-Pacific. There is a place and a time for a special dessert wine. Whatever the occasion, your guests will know your dinner is unique when you offer one of these exceptional dessert wines with your final course. Cheers!
*BA and TBA Wines from Germany: Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese
**ABV= Alcohol by Volume
Some Recommended Dessert Wines
Sparkling Dessert Wines
Veuve Clicquot Demi- Sec (375 ml half-bottle), Champagne, France
$37, Mark Britton review, 94 Points
Vietti Moscato d’Asti 2020,Asti, Piedmont, Italy
$15, a solid brand, no reviews yet
Richly Sweet Dessert Wines
Chateau Guiraud Petite Guiraud Sauternes (375 ml half-bottle)Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
$25, Robert Parker, 90 Points
Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine (375 ml half-bottle)Niagra Peninsula, Canada
$105 Wine Enthusiast, 96 points
Fortified Dessert Wines
Fonseca 20 Year Old Tawny,Port from Portugal
$56, Decanter Magazine, 95 Points
Blandy’s 5 Year Old Malmsey Madeira, Madeira, Portugal
$ 28, Wilfred Wong of Wine.com, 92 Points
Wine Wanderings Editorial Calendar
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An Interview with A Cal-Ital Winemaker: Pietro Buttitta of Prima Mateira Winery
Sonoma’s Russian River Valley- Single Vineyard Expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay