Dessert Wine Basics

In light of last weeks post on Port wines (and decadent dessert pairings), this week we wanted to follow up with some dessert wine basics. There are few pleasures in the wine world as hedonistic as a glass of great dessert wine.  Whether it be a honeyed, complex Sauternes or a delicate, frizzante Moscato d’Asti, these wines provide pure guilty pleasure and when considering the work that goes into crafting them, they are some of the most intriguing wines in the world.

Simply put, dessert wines are wines where there is a degree of residual sugar that remains after fermentation.  Generally wines in this category have 40 g/L or more of residual sugar and can soar to above 500 g/L in the most concentrated and rich examples.  In order to halt fermentation and concentrate sugars and flavors either nature or man must introduce some variable into the winemaking process. 

The four most common variables are:

  • Botrytis
  • Fortification by neutral spirits
  • Cold temperatures
  • Rasinating 

If you mention dessert wine to the average wine drinker the first word that will generally come up is Sauternes.  This golden elixir hails from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux and is the result of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea.   

 Normally this would lead to gray rot, which is a major threat to grapes.  However, if the exact right climactic conditions exist Botrytis (or noble rot or pourriture noble in Frenchhas the magical effect of shriveling the grapes and concentrating the sugars to above 100 g/L.  The resulting wines are honeyed and incredibly rich and complex.  Notes of orange marmalade, pineapple, butterscotch, wildflower honey, and white chocolate ooze out of the glass and the best examples are a mélange of exotic, luscious flavors.  These wines are some of the most expensive to produce in the world and in many vintages none are made, so expect to pay a premium for the experience of tasting one.  Sauternes from the famous Château d’Yquem regularly fetch some of the highest prices in wine auctions around the world.  Recently a half bottle of this wine from the 1811 vintage was sold for over $84,000.00! 

Sauternes does not have a monopoly on noble rot though.  There are also more reasonable examples in the style of Sauternes produced in the nearby regions of Barsac, Loupiac, Cerons, and Monbazzilac - if you’re lucky enough to find them, since they are rarely exported.   There are also very similar examples produced in the United States, Australia, and other new world countries on exceptional sites in exceptional vintages.  For other examples in France utilizing different grapes, look to the Loire Valley and Alsace and look for the term  Sélection de Grains Noble. In the Loire Valley regions of Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, and Coteaux du Layon the grape of choice is Chenin Blanc.  Noble rot turns this noble variety into a stunning nectar that is at once both viscous and light on its feet.  Beautiful flavors of apple, stone fruit, and nuts marry with an intense florality to produce an incredibly rare and long-lived wine. 

In Alsace the Sélection de Grains Noble wines lean towards heady and exotic aromas and tropical flavors due to the aromatic varieties grown there:  Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.  Expect to smell and taste exotic spices such as ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, white pepper, and allspice paired with flavors of mango, guava, lychee, pineapple, apricot, and quince.  Once again expect to pay a premium for the rarity and exceptional experience of these wines.

Moving on to Germany, Austria, and Hungary and the wines that many would argue compete with Sauternes for the title of best dessert wine:  Trockenbeerenauslesen and Tokajis.  The Trockenbeerenauslesen wines of Germany and Austria are once again are the result of noble rot (Edelfäule) and are stunningly sweet and rich…much sweeter than Sauternes even.  The purity and multi-faceted nature of these wines perfectly mirror the fact that they are most commonly made from Riesling. 

In Hungary the historic Tokaji wine producers utilize native grape varieties such as Furmint and Hárslevelű to produce regal wines of astounding sweetness and concentration.  The highest classification, Eszencia, can have sugar levels up to 900 g/L!  King Louis XV famously referred to this wine as “the Wine of Kings, the King of Wines.”

Another method of production for dessert wine involves stopping fermentation by the addition of strong neutral spirits.  This process allows for a high alcohol level unlike many other sweet wines and thus is referred to as “fortifying” the wine.  Port, Madeira, and Marsala are probably the most famous wines in this category, and due to the complexities and culture of these wines, I’ll save them for their own discussions. 

There are several wines produced in the south of France that fall into this category as well.  These vins doux naturels are generally lightly fortified and the most famous examples include Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Banyuls, Rasteau, Maury, and Rivesaltes.  Grenache and Muscat are the key players with regards to grape varieties in these categories.  The Grenache wines are quite varied and can be made in an oxidized style (rancio) and any range of colors from amber to ruby to almost black.  The Muscats retain the aromatic character of the grape and are quite intense in flavor and aroma.


Icewine (Eiswein in German) is one of the rarest dessert wines.  Grapes must be exposed to a hard freeze in order to freeze the water in the grapes.  This process greatly concentrates the juice and reduces the amount of juice in each grape to mere drops.  This stingy return paired with the fact that the grapes must be precariously left on the vines until sometimes after the new year often results in outrageous prices, but with sugar levels usually over 200 g/L one doesn’t need much of this treasure! 

Germany is the spiritual home of icewine but Canada and increasingly New York also claim some exemplary examples.  And while Riesling is the still the king of icewine, other traditional grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay and hybrid grapes such as Vidal and Sevyal Blanc make convincing examples as well.  Icewines can be surprising refreshing due to the exceptionally high level of acid that deftly balances the high sugar levels.

Finally, dessert wines can be produced by the process of drying and rasinating grapes either on the vine or after harvest.  Perhaps the most famous example of this style is the straw wine (passito in Italian) Vin Santo from Tuscany.  Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes are laid out on straw mats or hung in the rafters of the attics of wineries in Tuscany to produce a wine that is redolent of hazelnuts, toffee, nuts, and dried apricots.  A similar method is employed in the Veneto to produce Recioto della Valpolicella, a velvety red dessert wine.  

In Alsace the best plots are allowed to hang on the vine as long as nature allows to produce the exceptional vendanges tardives (late harvest) wines.  These wines are concentrated and rich but are not cloyingly sweet.  In the Loire Valley, this method is practiced as well with Chenin Blanc.  One sees this method also used in the new world.  Vin de Constance from South Africa is a notable historical example that has recently been revived.

Food Pairing

The general rule to follow when pairing sweet wines with desserts is that the wine must be sweeter than the accompanying dessert.  The red dessert wines are great partners for berry desserts or chocolate desserts (they pair similarly to ruby or vintage ports).  Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Alsace varieties often pair well with apple and stone fruit desserts, while the more aromatic varieties (Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris) are beautiful partners to tropical fruit or exotically spiced desserts.  For caramel, butterscotch, or nut-based desserts turn to Vin Santo or an amber Rivesaltes.  Sauternes can often be challenging to pair with desserts but is a classic partner for foie gras

 Indeed many of these wines make beautiful pairings for rich savory foods with sweet elements or for ethnic cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, or Middle Eastern.  Don’t miss trying a classic duck l’orange with a smoky, sweet Pinot Gris vendanges tardives from Alsace!  However, these gorgeous wines can stand on their own and be enjoyed as dessert in a glass.