Are you wanting to purchase an awesome dessert wine for that special occasion but have no idea where to start? Choosing a dessert wine can be a daunting task, even for seasoned connoisseurs. For starters there are many different varieties of sweet wine available on the market, not to mention the fact that sweet wines tend to cost more than table wines due to the fact that they are produced in a much more labor intensive process. So how do you pick one? Well, here we strive to make that easier for you. Take a look at our chart for a comprehensive break down of some of the best sweet wines on the market today.
|NV Sweet Bliss White 750 mL||Riesling, Pinot Gris||United States, Washington||$||*****|
|2012 Quady Electra Moscato - Orange Muscat 750 mL||Orange Muscat||United States, California, San Jaoquin county||$||*****|
|NV Duplin Wine Cellars Scuppernong Carolina Muscadine 750 mL||Muscadine||United States, North Carolina,||$||*****|
|2012 Pacific Rim Columbia Valley Sweet Riesling 750 mL||Riesling||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley||$||*****|
|NV Outdoor Vino Sundress Sweet 750 mL||White Blend||United States, Oregon, Rogue Valley||$||*****|
|2009 Tagaris Winery Eliseo Silva Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 750 mL||Chenin Blanc||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley||$||****|
|2012 Keswick Royale Norton Ice Wine 375 mL||Norton||United States, Virginia, Monticello||$$$||*****|
|2012 Wagner Vineyards Riesling Ice 375 mL||Riesling||United States, New York, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake||$$||*****|
|Maestral Riesling Ice Wine Santa Lucia Highlands 375 Ml||Riesling||United States, California, Santa Lucia Highlands||$$$||*****|
|NV Wilson Creek Decadencia Chocolate Dessert Zinfandel 375mL||Zinfandel||United States, California||$$$||****|
|2012 Wagner Vineyards Vidal Blanc Ice 375 mL||Vidal Blanc||United States, New York, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake||$$||****|
|2008 Ceja Vineyards Dulce Beso 375 mL||94% Sauvignon Blanc, 6% Semillon||United States, California, Nappa Valley||$$$$||****|
|2004 Messina Hof Winery Tawny Port 750 mL||Lenoir||United States, Texas, Texas High Plains||$$$||****|
|2009 Claar Cellars Ice Wine Riesling Estate Columbia Valley Washington 375ml||Riesling||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley||$$$$||****|
|1991 Dow Port Douro 750 mL||Port Blend||Portugal, Duoro region||$$$$$||*****|
|2007 Hunt Country Late Harvest Vignoles Finger Lakes Estate Bottled 375 mL||Vignoles||United States, New York, Finger Lakes||$$||****|
|Duck Pond Cellars Sémillon Dessert Wine Columbia Valley Desert Wind Vineyard 375 mL||Semillon||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley||$$||***|
|1985 Cockburn Vintage Port 750 mL||Port Blend||Portugal, Duoro region||$$$$||***|
|NV Fonseca Malvasia Madeira 750 mL||Malvasia||Portugal, Madeira||$||***|
|NV Mount Palomar Solera Cream Sherry 500 mL||Sherry Blend||United States, California, Temecula Valley||$$||***|
|2011 Blees Ferber River Bend Riesling Leiwener Klostergarten - Sweet 750 mL||Riesling||Germany, Landwein, Mosel,||$||****|
|NV Hard Row to Hoe "Ice Breaker" Ice Cider Dessert Wine 375 mL||Braeburn apples||United States, Washington, Lake Chelan||$$$||***|
|2008 Casa Larga-Fiori Delle Stelle Cabernet Franc Ice Wine 375 mL||Cabernet France||United States, New York, Finger Lakes||$$$$||****|
|2012 Quady Elysium Black Muscat 750ml||Black Muscat||United States, California, San Jaoquin county,||$$||***|
|2006 First Crush Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 375 mL||Sauvignon Blanc||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley,||$$||*****|
|2003 St. Barthelemy Cellars Merlot Port 375mL||Merlot||United States, California, San Jaoquin county||$$||****|
|NV Childress Vineyards Starbound North Carolina Blueberry Dessert Wine 375 mL||Fruit, Blueberry||United States, North Carolina,||$$||***|
|2010 Villa Toscano Winery California Shenandoah Valley Port 750 mL||Zinfandel||United States, California, Shenandoah valley,||$$$$||****|
|2010 Chateau Bianca Vin de Glace 375 mL||Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc||United States, Oregon,||$$||****|
|2011 Pacific Rim Vin de Glacire 375 mL||Riesling||United States, Washington, Columbia Valley||$||***|
What is Sweet Wine?
Sweet wine, also known as dessert wine, is a type of wine that has higher residual sugar content than table wine. Sweet wine is unique in that it involves a very labor intensive process to create. Some wine is labelled as being fruity or fruit forward and this type of wine can easily taste sweeter than it actually is. However, fruity wine is not necessarily sweet wine, if you want to know whether you have a real sweet wine on your hands or simply a fruity imposter, plug up your nose as you take a sip, if it’s truly sweet you should be able to taste the residual sugar content. There are many ways that wine makers seek to increase the residual sugar content in their wines. The best sweet wine will not have any added sugar in the bottle; the residual sugar will come naturally from the grapes and not from an additive. Although some wine makers do add sugar and label their wine afterwards as sweet, this is seen as cheating by many of the world’s premier manufacturers and is to be avoided if you are looking to buy an authentic, quality sweet wine.
Some Different Ways to Make Sweet Wine:
Late Harvest Wine:
Late harvest means that the grapes are left on the vine as late as November or even December in colder climates. Grapes left on the vine this late into the season shrivel up and as a result their residual sugar levels increase so that when they are pressed the juice that comes out is sweeter and more syrupy than that which comes from younger grapes. However there is a side effect to this process, because of the shrivelled nature of the grapes more of them are needed to produce a similar a quantity of table wine. This, plus the added process of handpicking along with weather related challenges, results in this type of wine having a higher price point than other types. During the fermentation process sugar converts into alcohol; to create dessert wine, this process is stopped early before all the residual sugar has been converted. The result is a sweet wine that has an alcohol content of around 8%. The Most famous sweet wines come from Germany and the French region of Alsace, their designation of late harvest is usually an indicator that they will be sweet, however in Germany late harvest wines can be fermented to completion and therefore dry. To find out whether your German wine is sweet or not look for the word doux on the label, this is French for sweet.
Also known as noble rot, this is a fungus that grows on the outside skin of grapes that are allowed to remain on the vine late into the season. Not all late harvest grapes are affected by this fungus, however all grapes that do get infected are late harvest. This fungus creates a furry growth on the outside skin of the grape causing it to shed some of its liquid by shrivelling up the grape until it is similar to a raisin, and therefore concentrate the sugars within (as Red grapes don’t do well with noble rot, all wines created in this way are white). This process creates a honeyed character in the wine and therefore is mostly produced using grapes with a high acidity level to balance this out. Popular grape varietals are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc. Some famous dessert wines produced in this way are French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji.
Invented in old antiquity in the Mediterranean by the Greeks and Phoenicians, this process has been largely unchanged since then. The grapes are allowed to bake in the sun whether by leaving them on the vine or picking them and setting them out on straw mats until they become raisins. This method dries out the liquid in the grape and concentrates the sugars within. Wine made using this method includes Portugese ports, Spanish sherries, and Tuscany’s vin santo.
The sun is neither as hot nor as prevalent in northern climates versus more traditional grape growing regions, therefore a different method had to be found to separate the liquids from the sugars in a grape. The solution: freeze the grapes to separate the contents. Enter Ice wine, a veritable heavy weight in the category of modern day dessert wine. It is made from grapes that are harvested extremely late in the season (think late January or even February) and are frozen over. These grapes are extremely difficult to press and result in a sugary liquid that is then fermented to create a crisp, clean, sweet tasting wine. Ice Wine is dominated by Germany (where it is know as Eiswein) and Canada; however it is also manufactured in Austria and the United States. Canadian and German regulations are strict and state that the grapes must be frozen at a temperature of -17C/19F before they are picked. Austria and the United States simply require the grapes to be frozen.
This last category is a bit different. It requires adding neutral tasting grape spirit to fermenting wine, thereby stopping the fermentation and creating a wine that is sweet and has an alcohol content of between 18- 20%. Portugal and Spain dominate this category, producing a large variety of ports, sherries, and Madeira wines.
Port wine produced in the Douro region of Portugal is made by adding brandy to the fermentation process and then aging the wine in a series of casks that each contain a progressively older vintage within. This means that most ports are blended vintages ensuring that the flavor profile of the final product is standard throughout. Single vintage ports do exist; they are usually aged for up to 20 years and are made using a particularly good vintage.
Sherry, which is made in the Spanish Jerez region, can be either dry or sweet. Sweet sherry is made by adding juice made from dried grapes to the wine. These grapes can be made into a dessert sherry of their own, however.
Lastly, Madeira is made on a small archipelago off the coast of Portugal in the same style as Sherry and Port; however, it is exposed to oxygen during aging which gives it a very sturdy quality. For example, this type of wine can be opened, returned to months or even years later, and will retain the same taste and flavor profile as at the beginning.
Types of Sweet Wine:
Made using frozen grapes, it was first produced in Germany and Austria under the name Eiswein, however in recent decades Canada has dominated this market, producing many of the world’s premiere ice wines. Because the grapes are frozen on the vine, they cannot be affected by noble rot, and the varietals used should be high in acidity in order to balance the sweetness out. The most popular grapes used are Riesling and Vidal Blanc in Canada and Gewurztraminer in Germany. Ice wine has traditionally always been white; however, in recent years, Canada has experimented by creating a red ice wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape. Ice wine is usually medium to full bodied, with medium stone fruit aromas of apricot and peach for white wines and strawberry and candied fruit for red. German wines tend to have a lower alcohol content than Canadian wines, however ice wine in general averages out around 7-12% alcohol. Ice wine tends to be pricey, as many dessert wines are; an average bottle will set you back anywhere from $50 to $100. However, the price is well worth it once you taste the incredible flavor of this delicious wine. White ice wine is a great accompaniment to a dessert of cheese cake or foie grass, while the red variety pairs excellently with a range of toffee and chocolate desserts.
Sweet Bordeaux Wines:
Also known as Sauternes or Barsac’s, these wines are produced in a micro climate situated between two French rivers (the Garonne and Ciron) in the Bordeaux region of France. This climate is perfect for producing noble rot which enables this wine to be very sweet. The grapes are hand picked by people who go through the vineyards and individually select the grapes which contain fungus. One rotted harvest, on average, produces only a quarter of the amount of wine produced from younger grapes. This fact, combined with the labor intensive production process, understandably results in the rather high prices associated with these wines. Only three grapes are used in creating sweet Bordeaux wines, with the most popular one being Semillon (80%), followed by Sauvignon Blanc (15%) and Muscadelle (5%). The Semillon grape creates a wine that has a heavy texture, high viscosity, and a deep golden color. This is contrasted to the Sauvignon Blanc which creates a fresh, vibrant and acidic wine with strong hints of aromatics. Muscadelle is rare and possibly the most powerful flavor profile of the 3 grapes, creating a wine with a very strong floral aroma. Sweet Bordeaux wines are luscious and pair very well with blue cheese, foie grass and other creamy desserts. The attention to detail in their manufacture makes them easily rank in the top for some of the worlds best sweet wines.
Made in Spain’s Jerez region, sherry is a very versatile fortified wine that can be either sweet or dry. Sweet sherry has several varieties, including cream sherry which is rich and mahogany in color with a thick velvety texture. It is made by pouring juice made from pedro jimenez raisins onto amontillado or oloroso sherry as it is fermenting, thereby stopping that process mid track and leaving the sugar behind.
Sweet Sherry can also be made using juice made from sun dried pedro jimenez grapes and fermenting it midway. This type of sherry has lower alcohol content because it isn’t fortified and tastes like toffee, fig, date and molasses. Dessert Sherry is definitely an after dinner treat. It’s strong flavor and higher alcohol content means that it should be enjoyed slowly, preferably with a dish of sweet figs, or other rich and sugary dessert.
Tokaji is a Hungarian wine world famous as one of the sweetest wines in production. The Tokaji Aszu variety was the first wine ever produced using rotten grapes; this type of wine has a long history as one of the wines served to European royalty (King Louis XIV of France even proclaimed this to be the king of wines). Tokaji wine comes in several varieties, with some varieties being so sweet as to be almost a syrupy nectar. Tokaji is known for producing the sweetest wine in the world called Eszencia, which at 5-6% can barely be called a wine; it is extremely sweet with a thick, syrupy, texture. The grapes are grown in a region containing volcanic sub-soil which sits conveniently between two rivers, creating the perfect conditions for the development of noble rot. Sixty percent of Tokaji is produced using the Furmint grape, with a further 30% made from the Hárslevelű grape, the remaining 10% is produced using a variety of different grapes including the Muscadelle. This is an expensive wine and very exclusive, with an appellation system dating back to a royal decree in 1757 establishing the growing region of Tokaji in Hungary (now also part of Slovakia) as the only place where wine labelled Tokaji could be produced. Tokaji can be difficult to find in local stores, luckily it is available online. It’s exclusivity, history and reputation marks Tokaji out as truly one of the world’s best sweet wines.