How Sweet It Is: A Guide to Dessert Wine

It's a most glorious way to end a meal.

Dessert Wines

Sweet wines have never been more popular in the U.S. As much as we all love a dry sauvignon blanc or crisp chardonnay, it's actually sweet wines like moscato that are growing the fastest in terms of wine sales (you can thank hip-hop artists for making moscato so trendy).

If you haven't had a dessert wine you enjoy, you probably haven't yet discovered the right style for you as this is a diverse category with a lot to offer. Sipping a dessert wine with a creamy flan, a slice of dark chocolate cake, or with a cheese board is a wonderful way to finish a meal. Or skip dessert and end the meal on a sweet note with glasses of sauternes, ice wine, or port.

Dessert Wine Basics

Not surprisingly, all dessert wines start with grapes that have a very high natural sugar content. During the fermentation process, that natural sugar is converted into alcohol-and wines that have all the sugar fermented out of them are referred to as "dry." In the case of dessert wine, winemakers stop the fermentation early so the natural sweetness remains. Dessert wines can be red, white, or rosé, and can range from just a whisper of sweetness to a full-on-sugar-bomb. The key to a fantastic dessert wine is high acidity, which keeps all that sweetness from being too cloying and gives complexity, vibrancy, and 'lift' to the experience of drinking it!

Sparkling Dessert Wine

If you're seeking something light, sweet, and delicate, go with sparkling dessert wines. Light, effervescent, and typically low in alcohol, the bubbles make these wines festive and fun for any time of day. Look for sweet sparklers made from muscat, brachetto, riesling or torrontes grapes. These wines are wonderful at brunch, or paired with fresh fruit desserts like Orange and Yogurt Tart or a simple Fruit Platter with Whipped Ricotta.


Concentrated, Rich Dessert Wine

There are a few different ways to make these incredibly rich wines. With all these different methods, steps are taken to concentrate the sugar in the grapes prior to crushing. One way is to make a late-harvest wine which means leaving the grapes on the vine very late into the growing season so they get maximum sugar levels, sometimes even through the first frost (known as ice wine). Another way is use the passito method, where grapes are dried on straw mats, essentially making sweet raisins before turning them into wine. And finally, some grapes take on a fungus called botrytis (or, noble rot), which evaporates the water and concentrates the sugars-it sounds unpleasant but the result is magical. All of these rich dessert wines have a luscious, thick mouthfeel and complex flavors like honey, marmalade, and spices. Sauternes, tokaji, and vin santo are popular examples of concentrated, rich dessert wine. Blue cheese is a classic pairing: try Dates and Blue Cheese or Blue Cheese Gougeres with Caramel and Salt.

Another method is to make a fortified wine, that means some brandy is added to the fermenting grape juice, which stops the fermentation and preserves some of the residual sugar-and incidentally kicks up the alcohol content. Fortified wines usually range from 18-20 percent alcohol, perfect for keeping warm in the cold winter months.


There are two main styles of port: ruby port has more dark, rich fruit to it and is a classic pairing with chocolate truffles, where tawny port has more butterscotch, caramel, and nutty notes. Try a tawny port with a cheese platter for a perfect after-dinner treat!


Sherry is a fortified wine from Andalucía on the southern coast of Spain. The important thing to know is that sherry runs the spectrum from bone-dry and delicate to insanely rich and sweet. So, while the dry styles like fino and Amontillado are enjoyed as aperitifs and are making a comeback on bar menus as base for cocktails, for dessert you should look for sherries in these three styles: cream, moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez (PX). Dessert sherries have incredibly decadent flavors like chocolate, toffee, nuts, and figs. PX sherry can be poured over ice cream, and cream style sherries are delicious with custard-based desserts like flan or crème caramel.


Madeira is a fortified wine named after its birthplace: an island located four hundred miles off the North African coast. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Madeira was a stopping point for ships traveling to the New World and the East Indies. The first Madeiras were created as wine that could stand up to travel: to prevent the wine from spoiling on its voyage, brandy was routinely added to the barrel. Then, the intense heat from sailing around the equator and constant movement of the ships naturally concentrated and oxidized the wine. Today, these natural effects are duplicated by other means in the winery; in the highest quality Madeira, the wines are aged in oak in the heat of the sun, and slowly mature in the warm and humid climate of the island. Because Madeira is already essentially "cooked," it is renowned for never spoiling: There is Madeira from the late 18th century still around today and it is perfectly drinkable. Try a Madeira (though maybe not a 200 year-old-one!), with Sticky Toffee Pudding or Hazelnut Cookies.

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