Skip the heavy dessert option for something that will make your mouth twinkle. Dessert wines are meant to be enjoyed in small glasses and treasured like a glass of Scotch. Learn about the 5 major styles of dessert wine, from delicately fizzy Moscato d’Asti to rich brooding vintage Port.
The 5 types of dessert wine are:
- Sparkling Dessert Wine
- Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine
- Richly Sweet Dessert Wine
- Sweet Red Wine
- Fortified Wine
Types of Dessert Wine Guide
Dessert Wine Basics Sweet wine is produced with extra sweet wine grapes. In order to make them sweet, the fermentation is stopped before the yeast turns all the natural grape sugar into alcohol. There are several ways to stop the fermentation, including super-cooling or adding brandy to wine. Both methods create an environment where yeast won’t survive. While there are hundreds of different types of dessert wines available in the market, most fall into 5 main styles. This guide outlines the 5 styles and includes examples of each.
Throughout this guide you’ll notice that some wine grapes are used for dessert wines more than others. There are two reasons for this: one is historic – the grapes have been used for sweet wines for centuries – The other is physiological – the grapes have inherent sweetness in their natural aromas making them perfect for sweet winemaking.
An example of these types of wine grapes is Muscat Blanc. This wine grape is around 1500 years older than the more en vogue Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sparkling Dessert Wine
The sensation of bubbles and high acidity in most sparkling wine makes them taste less sweet than they actually are. When you taste more of the different varieties, you’ll notice certain grape varieties smell sweeter (and thus taste sweeter) than others. For instance, if you try a Demi-Sec traditional Champagne (which is usually a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) it will taste less sweet than a Demi-Sec Sparkling Moscato even though both may have the same amount of sugar.
When looking for sweet dessert wine Champagnes and other bubbly wines, keep your eyes peeled for these words on the label:
- Demi-Sec* (‘off-dry’ in French)
- Amabile (‘slightly sweet’ in Italian)
- Semi Secco* (‘off-dry’ in Italian)
- Doux (‘sweet’ in French)
- Dolce / Dulce (‘sweet’ in Italian / Spanish)
- Moelleux (‘sweet’ for some French wines) *not to be confused with ‘Sec’, ‘Sekt’ or ‘Secco’ which is the term for ‘Dry’ in French, German and Italian, respectively
Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine
Lightly sweet wines are refreshingly sweet; perfect for a hot day. Many of these sweet wines pair well with spicy foods like Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. Light sweet wines are meant to be enjoyed at their freshest although some examples, such as Riesling, age well.
Expect these wines to be exploding with fruit flavors and well suited for fruit-based and vanilla-driven desserts. For instance, consider Gewürztraminer: this wine is known for its lychee and rose petals aromas. A Gewürztraminer might pair well with a pear and kiwi tart.
- Gewürztraminer A highly floral wine with moderate alcohol that’s commonly found in Alsace, Alto-Adige (Italy), California and New Zealand.
- Riesling Available in both dry styles (common in Australia, Alsace and the US) as well as sweeter styles more commonly available from Germany. A wine with high natural acidity which helps cut the sweet taste.
- Müller-Thurgau A less common variety also from Germany and found in parts of Oregon that has floral aromas with slightly lighter acidity. Classic porch wine and well-loved with sausages.
- Chenin Blanc Chenin Blanc is commonly made in a sweeter style in the US and it’s also produced in large amounts in South Africa and the Loire Valley of France. Pay attention to labels when buying Chenin Blanc because many South African and French producers create dry versions that taste more similar to Sauvignon Blanc.
- Viognier Viognier for the most part, is not sweet. However, as an aromatic grape variety, occasionally you can find it in a fruit-driven style smelling of peaches and perfume. It’s rich and oily on the palate. This style of Viognier is found specifically from Condrieu AOP from the Rhône Valley) in France.
Richly Sweet Dessert Wine
Richly sweet wines are made with the highest quality grapes in an unfortified style. Many of these wines can age 50+ years because sweetness and acidity preserve their fresh flavor. Some of these wines are historically important including Hungarian Tokaji (‘toe-kye’) which was loved by the Tzars of Russia; South African Constantia which was an obsession of the Dutch and English; and French Sauternes which was loved by Americans in the early 1800’s.
There are several ways to produce richly sweet dessert wines and you can understand them better by how they’re made.
- Late harvest means exactly what it’s called. As grapes hang on the vine longer in the season they become even sweeter and more raisinated, resulting in a wine that has a higher residual sugar (or alcohol, depending on how long you let it ferment). In Alsace this style is called “Vendage Tardive” and in Germany it is called “Spätlese”. There are many late harvest wines in the US which are sold as dessert wines and typically have around 15-17% ABV.
- Noble rot is a type of spore called Botrytis cinerea that rots fruits and vegetables. While it sounds and looks disgusting it adds a unique and highly sought-after flavor of ginger and honey in wine. There are many wines made from ‘noble rot’ grapes including:
- Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac and Monbazillac are French Appellations in and around Bordeaux that use Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle to make a golden-hued sweet wine.
- Tokaji is a wine from Hungary made with botrytis Furmint grapes that are rated in different levels of sugar, from 5-6 Puttonyos (with a minimum of 120 grams residual sugar; the same level as cola).
- Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling In the German Pradikat system (a sweetness labeling system), Auslese is the first level with a higher proportion of botrytis-affected grapes. Besides being sweeter than the lower level “QbA” and “Kabinett” German Rieslings, they also tend to have higher alcohol.
Grapes are laid out on straw mats to raisinate before being pressed into wine.
- Italian Vin Santo is made with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes and has rich nutty date-like flavors. There are several styles of Vin Santo made throughout Italy.
- Italian Passito Another straw wine made with several different kinds of grapes, both white and red. For instance, Passito di Pantelleria is Muscat-based and Caluso Passito is made with the rare grape Erbaluce from Piedmont.
- Greek Straw Wines Greece also produces Vinsanto which is made with high-acid white Assyrtiko grapes; Samos is a sweet wine made from Muscat grapes; and Commandaria is a sweet wine from Cyprus that dates back to 800 B.C.E.
- German Strohwein/Austrian Schilfwein are increasingly rare sweet wines made from Muscat and Zweigelt grapes in Austria and Germany.
- French Vin de Paille Most notably from the Jura region of France, which is adjacent to the alps, these Vin de Paille are produced using Chardonnay and ancient Savagnin grapes.
Ice Wine (Eiswein)
- True ice wine is extremely rare and expensive for two reasons: 1) it only occurs in bizarre years when a vineyard freezes and 2) ice wine must be harvested and pressed while the grapes are still frozen (usually in the middle of the night). Ice wines are commonly produced in cold regions like Canada, Germany and Switzerland where the aforementioned prerequisites can be met. Most ice wines are made with Riesling or Vidal grapes although anything, even Cabernet Franc, can be used to produce an ice wine. You’ll find them to be honeyed and richly sweet, similar to a ‘noble rot’ wine.
Sweet Red Wine
Sweet reds are on decline except for cheap commercial production. However, there are still a few well-made historically interesting sweet reds worth trying. The majority of these awesome sweet red wines are from Italy using esoteric grapes.
- Lambrusco A region producing a refreshing bubbly wine in both dry and sweet styles. Since it’s a sparkling wine, it will have a yeasty undertone along with raspberry and blueberry flavors. Sweet versions are labeled as “Amabile” and “Dulce”.
- Brachetto d’Acqui A still and bubbly red or rosé wine made with Brachetto grapes from the Piedmont region. Famous for its floral and strawberry aromas as well as its affinity to pairing with cured meats.
- Schiava A rare variety from Alto-Adige that is nearly wiped off the map. Smelling sweetly of raspberry and cotton candy while being refreshing and only a touch sweet.
- Freisa Once one of the great red varieties of Piedmont, Freisa is related to Nebbiolo with lighter tannins and floral cherry notes.
- Recioto della Valpolicella Made in the same painstaking process as Amarone wine, Recioto della Valpolicella is lush, bold and rich.
- Late-Harvest Red Wines There are many red dessert wines in the US made with grapes such as Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Malbec and Petite Sirah. These wines explode with sweetness and heightened alcohol content.
Fortified wines are made when grape brandy is added to a wine and can either be dry or sweet. Most fortified wines are higher in alcohol content (about 17-20% ABV) and have a longer shelf life after they are opened.
Port wine is made in the Northern part of Portugal along the Douro river. The wines are made with dozens of Portuguese traditional grapes including some of the most famous: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz. The grapes are collected and fermented together in open tanks where the grapes are stomped daily as the wine begins to ferment. At a point in the fermentation, the wine is strained and blended with a neutral grape spirit (with nearly 70% ABV) that stops fermentation and creates the fortified wine. After this process, there are a series of winemaking steps that lead into the different styles listed below.
- Ruby & Crusted Port (sweet) This is an introductory style of Port wine that tastes of freshly minted port and is much less sweet than Tawny Port.
- Vintage & LBV Port (sweet) LBV and Vintage Port are made in the same style but LBV are designed to be enjoyed in their youth (due to the style of cork enclosure) and vintage Ports are meant to be aged about 20-50 years before drinking.
- Tawny Port (very sweet) The process of aging a Tawny Port happens at the winery in large wooden casks and smaller wooden barrels. The longer the Tawny Port ages, the more nutty and figgy it becomes. A 30-40 year Tawny is the best.
- Port-Style Wines a.k.a. Vin Doux Naturel (sweet) Port can only be made in Portugal although many producers all over the world make port-style wines such as Zinfandel ‘Port’ or a Pinot Noir ‘Port’. We refer to these wines as vin doux naturel(see below).
Sherry comes from Andalusia, Spain. The wines are made using Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (a grape, not a person) and Moscatel grapes. Wines are produced using varying amounts of the three grapes and are purposefully oxidized so that they develop nutty aromatics.
- Fino (dry) The lightest and most dry of all the Sherries with tart and nutty flavors.
- Manzanilla (dry) A specific style of Fino Sherry from a more specialized region that’s even lighter than Fino.
- Palo Cortado (dry) A slightly richer style of sherry that is aged longer producing darker color and richer flavor. These wines are typically dry but will have fruit and nut aromas with salinity.
- Amontillado (mostly dry) An aged sherry that takes on nutty flavors of peanuts and butter.
- Oloroso (dry) A very aged and dark sherry that has higher alcohol content due to the evaporation of water as the wine ages. This is more like the scotch of Sherry.
- Cream (sweet) A sweet style of Sherry made by blending Oloroso with Pedro Ximénez Sherry.
- Moscatel (sweet) A sweet sherry with fig and date flavors.
- Pedro Ximénez (PX) (very sweet) A very sweet sherry with brown sugar and figlike flavors.
Madeira is a wine produced using up to 4 different grapes on the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is very unlike other wines because, in order to produce it, the wines undergo a heating and oxidation process – techniques that would traditionally ‘ruin’ a wine. The result is a rich fortified wine with walnut-like flavors, salinity and an oiliness on the palate. Because of the 4 different grapes used, Madeira range from dry to sweet making them work well alongside a meal or even as a pre-dinner drink.
- Rainwater & Madeira When the label just says “Madeira” or “Rainwater” assume that it’s a blend of all 4 grapes and somewhere in the middle in terms of sweetness.
- Sercial (dry) Sercial is the driest and the lightest of all the grapes in Madeira. These wines will have higher acidity and be dry with notes of peaches and apricot. It’s not too uncommon to see Sercial Madeira aged for 100 years.
- Verdelho (dry) Verdelho has citrus notes and will develop nutty flavors of almond and walnut with time.
- Bual (sweet) Bual leans on the sweet side with notes of burnt caramel, brown sugar, fig, rootbeer and black walnut. It’s common to find 10 year old ‘medium’ (meaning: medium sweet) Bual Madeira although there are several well aged 50-70 year old Bual as well.
- Malmsey (sweet) Malmsey Madeiras have orange citrus notes and caramel to their taste along with the oily oxidized nutty flavor.
Vin Doux Naturel (VDN)
Vin Doux Naturel are made in a similar style to Port where a base wine is created and finished with neutral grape brandy. The term vin doux naturel comes from France, but this classification could be used to describe a wine from anywhere.
- Grenache-based VDN Typically from the south of France, such as Maury, Rasteau and Banyuls from Languedoc-Roussillon
- Muscat-based VDN Muscat de Rivesaltes, Muscat de Frotignan, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Ruthernglen Muscat (Australia), Orange Muscat and Vin Santo Liquoroso (Italy).
- Malvasia-based VDN mostly from Italy and Sicily such as Malvasia delle Lipari Liquoroso
- Mavrodaphni From Greece, Mavrodaphni is a sweet red wine with many similarities to Port.