A Comprehensive Guide to Dessert Wine

We're firm believers in the saying "have your cake, and drink it too!"

Sweet and dessert wines are a delicious way to end a meal or get together, usually acting as a perfect way to round out a delicious food-filled gathering. With its characteristic sweetness and moderately high alcohol content, sweet wines offer intense aromas, and concentrated candied and honeyed flavors. Contrary to popular belief, some sweet wines are aged up to 15 years, where they pick up darker, more rich flavors that make it taste less like simple sugar and more like a complex vino.

For many, a dessert wine can be as simple as any wine enjoyed during dessert. To others, dessert wines are specifically chosen for their sweetness, opened on special occasions, served in smaller glasses, and slowly sipped through thoughtful food pairings. 

If you’ve got a sweet spot and a sweet tooth for these types of wines, look no further. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to sweet and dessert wines, starting from the various methods of production, and ending with an overview of our selection of sweet wines.

We also have guides on red wine, white wine, rosé wine and sparkling wine too. Check those out if you’re curious about other types of wine!

So How is Sweet and Dessert Wine Made?

There are actually several ways through which sweet & dessert wines are produced by modern winemakers. We’ll be diving into a few specific methods of production, going through how each one adds sweetness and alcohol content in its own unique way.

The Process of Making Sweet and Dessert Wines

Method 1: Fortification

Fortification is one of the most common ways winemakers will “sweeten-up” a wine. Typically, during or after the fermentation process, a grape spirit (or “brandy”) is added to a wine, depending on the specific type of wine being made.

If the grape spirit is added after fermentation, the wine develops a dry finish, and if added during fermentation, the wine intensifies its sweetness. When the wine ferments the added spirit, its alcohol content breaks down the yeast. This leaves residual sugar in the wine, making it sweeter and increasing the overall alcohol content too. A higher alcohol percentage allows some sweet and dessert wines to be aged for longer, as well as have a longer shelf life.

Method 2: Late Harvest

Leaving grapes on the vine for longer than intended allows them to over ripen. Naturally, this causes the grapes to be packed with natural sugars. The extra time winemakers allow the grapes spans anywhere from one to two months after the initial harvest. Some of your favorite sweet wines come from this method of production!

Method 3: Noble Rot

Don’t be alarmed: despite the word “rot” in this production method, it actually produces some of the most expensive sweet wines out there. Winemakers who use this method will usually let late harvest grapes sit on the vine until they actually rot and develop a grey fungus.

This fungus, Botrytis Cinerea, grows on the outsides of the grape clusters. This fungus, also known as the noble rot, severely dehydrates the grapes, stripping away their water content but simultaneously skyrocketing the sugar concentration!

Method 4: Ice Wine

This production method is perhaps the most difficult out of all of them. Vineyards with climates that drop below freezing points cause the water in their grapes to freeze solid. While the grapes are still frozen, these grapes are harvested in the dead of night to ensure cool temperatures. Once pressed, the fermentation can take anywhere between 2 to 6 months, since the juice is so concentrated and sweet.

Method 5: Passito

You’ve probably picked up on the goal of all these production methods: increasing sugar content in grapes in any way possible. This production method involves drying grapes much like drying any other type of fruit.

First, the grapes are essentially left on the wine until they are nearly completely dried out, then harvested. The next step is to either further dry the grapes by laying them on straw mats, or hanging them from ceilings in warm, indoor rooms.

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Sweet & Dessert Wine Varietals

Moscato

  • Notable Regions Grown: Piedmont & Asti Regions of Italy, California, Australia
  • Origin: The origins of Moscato can be traced back to Greece
  • Sweetness: Semi-sweet
  • Flavors: Peaches, lemon, orange, pear, honeysuckle

Moscato has gotten worldwide attention for its delicate, sweet fruit flavors. Moscato wines are a popular wine made from the Muscat family of grapes, which consists of over 200 varieties. Moscato wines are known for their sweet, citrus aromas that feature notes and flavors of orange, pear, lemon and more, however, the grapes can also be used to make dessert wines, which are known for their sweet and rich caramel flavors. It is also one of the oldest wine grapes in the world.

Food Pairing with Moscato

Moscato is intended to be served chilled and pairs well with light, zesty salads, and a number of desserts, including apple and peach cobblers. Some common food pairings with Moscato include the following:

  • Meat: Roasted chicken or steak
  • Seafood: Poached fish fillet
  • Cheese: Mature burrata cheese, Mozzarella, Grana Padano
  • Dessert: Chocolate or custard pie, sweet cashew nut curry

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Our Selection of Moscato

  • Italy - Abbazia Moscato Vino Dolce I.G.T.: Looking for a delicate, floral wine? This delicious Moscato from Northern Italy’s Lombardia province will satisfy your sweet tooth as an aperitif or with a delectable dessert.
  • Italy - Abbazia Moscato Rosé Dolce: With a lovely pink hue in the glass, this non-vintage rosé Moscato is a sweet and fruity sparkling wine with flavor notes of candied strawberries, peaches, apricots, bubblegum, and cherry licorice.
  • Italy - 2017 Tesoro Vite Moscato d’Asti D.O.C.G.: Delicate, but ripe aromas of white peaches and nectarines surround notes of white flowers and cherry blossoms.

View our full collection of Moscato here!

Riesling

  • Notable Regions Grown: Germany, United States, Australia, Italy
  • Origin: Germany
  • Sweetness: Dry, semi-sweet, or sweet
  • Flavors: Apple, Citrus, Peach, Honey

The Riesling grape varietal is actually one of the most versatile grapes out there. Most Riesling wines are known for being very dry, enamel-stripping wines. But at the same time, this varietal makes deliciously sweet, high quality wines, with a seemingly perfect amount of sugar you can taste in each sip.

Originating from the Rhine Basin of Germany, this grape gives off delightful perfumed, floral aromas on the vine, translating to a highly acidic wine. The acidity of Riesling wines allows it to be suitable for extended aging, since the high sugar content helps preserve it in the cellar. Riesling wines are usually enjoyed when young, giving off grapefruit, gooseberry, and rose blossom flavors.

Food Pairing with Riesling

Riesling wines are notoriously dry and crisp, giving it a distinctive minerality, acidity, and palate. This helps it pair well with a wide selection of meats and seafood, but also helps it play nicely with a variety of cheeses. But best of all, if you’re a caramel or chocolate lover, this wine is the best friend to sweet treats!

  • Meat: Pork, Foie gras, Smoked meat, BLT sandwiches
  • Seafood: Lobster, scallops, crab, seared fish
  • Cheese: Goat cheese, blue cheese
  • Desserts: Caramel, apple pies, cheesecake, Almond Joy

Our Selection of Riesling

  • Germany - 2018 Süßen Riesling Rheinhessen: This elegant, sweet white wine packs a lively tropical punch with every sip. Look for notes of green apple, citrus, pineapple, and melon. It’s also a Gold Medal Winner of the 2019 Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition!

Serving Sweet & Dessert Wines

The rule of thumb for lighter sweet wines is that they should be enjoyed quickly, like other dry wines we know so well. However, many people prefer to enjoy their dessert wines one slow sip at a time, so keeping your serving size in mind is always a good idea. In fact, many sweet wines even come in half-sized bottles, since they can be quite concentrated.

Additionally, sweet and dessert wines should always be served lightly chilled. Chilling sweeter wines helps slightly counteract the sweetness, and also helps preserve the more delicate flavors in each sip. We recommend serving these dessert wines in regular glasses, or in a Port glass.

Sweet & Dessert Wine In a Nutshell

With many styles to choose from, sweet and dessert wines can satisfy sweet cravings for many different palates. It's clear that these wines are no less complex than other dry wines. Rather, the sweetness of these drinks introduce a new set of unique flavors and textures in each sip, keeping a smile on your face as you finish your equally delicious dessert!

Ready to learn more? Start with some of our other guides!

Learn About Rosé Wine
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Learn About White Wine
Learn About Sparkling Wine