Dessert wines, also known as pudding wines in some regions in the world, are sweet wines served with dessert, and it’s no easy task to define them. In the USA, a wine needs to have more than 14% alcohol by volume for it to be described as a dessert wine. But at the same time, many fortified wines contain even more alcohol than 14% – then there are German dessert wines that contain alcohol levels around half of these.
You get the picture of why it is not easy to put a strict definition of what defines a dessert wine.
How are Dessert Wines produced?
Ideally, the dessert wine needs to contain high levels of both alcohol and sugar. But, because all wines are produced through fermentation, they are traded off. However, that doesn’t mean you can do something about it. There are several ways to increase sugar levels by the time the wine is ready to be consumed.
One approach to increase sugar levels is to harvest the grapes as late as possible. That way, they naturally have high sugar levels that allow for great sweetness and high alcohol levels.
Adding sugar, before or after the fermentation, is also an option to increase the sweetness and alcohol levels. Some winemakers add honey instead of sugar.
Adding alcohol is a process that is known as a fortification. It is the same process that winemakers use to produce fortified wines such as Commandaria wine, sherry, Madeira, port, and so on.
Some winemakers remove all the water from the grapes so that the sugar is more concentrated. If the vineyard is in a frosty climate, grapes are freezing out to eliminate all the water in it, or most of it. That’s the same process used for making ice wine. If the climate is warmer, winemakers use air drying, whereas, in damp climates, they lean on fungal infection to achieve the same result – remove the water and concentrate all the sugar.
Styles of Dessert Wines
There are five types of dessert wines:
Sparkling Dessert Wine
Some of the most popular sparkling dessert wines are Demi-Sec, Amabile, Semi Secco, Doux, Dolce / Dulce, and Moelleux.
Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine
The list of excellent lightly sweet dessert wines features Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, and of course the well-known Riesling.
Richly Sweet Dessert Wine
They are made only of the highest-rated grapes and can age 50+ years. Some of the best wines are the Hungarian Tokaji, the French Sauternes, the South African Constantia, and so on.
Sweet Red Wine
Most of the sweet red wines are made in Italy and usually come from certain esoteric varieties. Some of the best wines include Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Acqui, Schiava, Recioto Della Valpolicella, and Freisa.
Their alcohol levels are usually beyond 17% and have a long shelf life. Some of the most notable fortified wines that also happen to fall in the dessert wine category are Port (Ruby & Crusted Port, Tawny Port, Vintage & LBV Port, and Vin Doux Naturel), Madeira (Verdelho, Malmsey, Bual, Sercial), Sherry (Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, Cream Sherry, Oloroso, Amontillado).
Serving Dessert Wines
The general rule here is that the wine should not be sweeter than the dessert it is served with. For example, many sommeliers believe that a perfectly ripe peach is the ideal food for most dessert wines.
If the dessert is toffee-based or chocolate, it is best not to serve it with wine. But if your guests insist on wine, then you should go with a fortified wine or even perhaps a red dessert wine such as Recioto Della Valpolicella.
Alternatively, you can present and serve the wine itself as a dessert.
Bakery sweets often make a good combination with a sweet dessert wine. For example, somewhat bitter biscuits are a perfect match with wines such as Vin Santo. Dunk the bitter biscuit into the wine, and you will understand first-hand why they make a good match.
In terms of optimal serving temperature, dessert wines are best served chilled. Most dessert wines can even be served cold. Red dessert wines are an exception to that rule as they need to be served at room temperature or slightly below the average room temperature.