Dessert Wines: 101

Posted November 26, 2016

Stacy Brody


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There are so many occasions which call for dessert, especially this time of year. You just want something sweet to close out a meal, enjoy with a course of cheese and fruit, or wind down with at the end of a long day. Life, after all, is sweet.

As sweet as some of the world’s finest wines. Well-made dessert wines are not cloying. They are balanced and delicious. Well-made ones last nearly forever.

Geek alert: This is extreme winemaking. Imagine making wines from frozen grapes, dried grapes, even fungus-infected grapes. It’s a gamble. In some years, producers aren’t able to make these wines because the frost doesn't come or the conditions aren’t ideal for fungus to develop or the grapes don't dry. Winemakers put their stock in conditions lining up just right. So, please, don’t scoff! Try one (or all) of the following. Come back and tell me it wasn’t good.


Midnight and the press is on…

It’s freezing cold, the middle of winter, and the team is out picking frozen grapes. They’re hopeless fools for believing they can actually make wine from these berries! (*Note: I will use berries and grapes interchangeably.)


To produce Ice Wine, or Eiswein (as it is called in Germany and Austria), growers let grapes hang long past their regular harvest season. They pick only after the grapes have frozen on the vine and at the coldest time of day or night.

If I were a producer, I’d freak out – what if a storm came and knocked off all the grapes? What if birds ate them? What if raccoons got to them?

The frozen “survivor” grapes are pressed, still in the freezing cold, so that water remains behind as ice crystals. Only very sweet, highly concentrated juice is gently pressed out of frozen berries. Not only is sugar concentrated in this juice, but also acidity, which prevents ice wines from being cloying.

When I say cloying, think of sugar water – there’s no acidity. It’s sweet but doesn’t taste like much and leaves your tongue feeling kind of slimy. Then, think of good lemonade, which has sugar and acidity – it’s balanced, refreshing, tasty. That’s what I’m talking about here.

True Ice Wine/Eiswein can only be produced in cold-climate regions such as Canada, the Finger Lakes of New York, Germany, and Austria. Typically Riesling and Vidal Blanc are the main grapes for ice wines. I’ve also seen red Ice Wines, made from such grapes as Cabernet Franc, in the Finger Lakes and Canada – outrageous and totally worth it.


They get juice out of those grapes?

Over breakfast, I wonder how much juice I could get out of the raisins in my granola. I imagine not too much. Yet, Italian producers of select dessert wines do just that. They purposefully dry out grapes and then press them to make wine.


The same reason Ice Wine producers let grapes freeze – to concentrate flavors and sugars. Grapes, after being harvested in the fall, are laid out to dry until Christmas, often later. (In Italian, this process of drying grapes is referred to as recioto). What happens if there is a spell of humidity? Oh, the stress!

Dried grapes can be used to make dry wines, like Amarone. In this case, fermentation is pushed through until essentially all of the sugars are converted into alcohol. In other cases, fermentation is stopped early, preserving the natural sweetness and producing unique dessert wines, such as Recioto di Soave in the Veneto and Vin Santo in Tuscany.

In France, similarly made wines are called Vins des Pailles, or wines of straw. To produce these wines, winemakers once laid the grapes out to dry on mats of straw. Modern-day producers have found that good straw is hard to come by. These wines are made in the Jura and also in the Hermitage region of the Rhone. Both are generally made from white wine grape varieties.

Dried grape wines – it is a paradox, and a palatable one at that.


Now this is a noble kind of rot…

As someone who has taken a course or two in plant pathology, I get all sorts of excited about plant diseases (growers hate people like me).

Striking at the wrong times, the fungus Botrytis cineara is devastating, reducing both the quantity and quality of harvest. However, when B. cineara strikes the right grapes at the right times under the right conditions, the results are really quite tasty. That’s why, in certain regions, producers actually hope to see this fungus in their vineyards. Some of the world’s most famous dessert wines are made from rotten grapes – there’s Sauternes from Bordeaux (France), Sélection de Grains Nobles from Alsace (also France), Tokaji Aszu from Hungary, and Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings from Germany and Austria (that last one is a mouthful!). Because of its potential for producing truly gorgeous wines, this fungus is also known as ‘noble rot.’

Why, you ask, would I want to drink wine made from rotten fruit? Generally speaking, I do not advise eating rotten food products. Seems like a bad idea. I make an exception for these wines.

The regions best-suited to producing noble rot wines are located near bodies of water. Lakes and rivers produce morning mists, perfect for a fungus needing warm, humid conditions. The fungus punctures the grapes (thin-skinned varieties are highly susceptible), which then dry out on the vine. Grapes must be picked at exactly the right time, before they get too rotten but after they have lost a bit of water. Because infection is not uniform throughout the vineyard, hand harvesting is essential, and several walk-throughs must be made.

Each region grows different varieties from which to make these honey-like dessert wines. Sauternes wines are made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, whereas Sélections de Grains Nobles are produced from Riesling. Tokaji wines are produced mainly from an indigenous Hungarian variety called Furmint. Each region has slightly different aging requirements, and all are delicious.

A confluence of many factors, from weather to pathology to enology, makes these wines possible.


These are great gift wines and are great hits at holiday dinners. 


Suggested pairings

Pair ice wine with good cheese and fresh fruit. The wines, though sweet, are often balanced with a refreshing acidity and pair well with creamy, sweet blue cheeses. Think about the richness, the weight of the wine on the palate. A creamy, high-fat content cheese will match that.

Pair vin santo with biscotti, preferably homemade because that makes everything more delicious. You could pick up some cannolis (noms) from the local Italian bakery.

Pair Sauternes, and other noble-rot wines, with strong blue cheeses. These are strongly flavored wines that need strongly flavored cheeses, like Roquefort, to stand up alongside them. Also consider funky washed-rind cheeses to complement these wines.


Go ahead. Make life sweet...and just a little bit funky. Cheers!


Item: 88498

375 mL

Retail: $30.99

$22.98 per btl

Product Label.

Felsina Vin Santo

92 Monica Larner - Robert Par...

Item: 92095

375 mL

Retail: $52.99

$35.99 per btl

Product Label.

Gini Col Foscarin Recioto Soave

94 James Suckling - Jamessuck...

Item: 92826

375 mL

Retail: $31.99

$27.99 per btl