Americans love their sugar. The home of Dolly Madison, Coca-Cola and blush wine peddles tons of tooth-decaying junk, but for some reason, the masses have not welcomed sweet dessert wines into their lives. Wine snobs have loved them for years, and they’ve been around since Roman times. So we who love the sweet stuff should love dessert wines, right? Try ’em! They’re soothing, mellow and fruity, and the perfect end to any meal, with or without food.
Unlike sugary blush wines, dessert wines are naturally sweet, made with grapes that “raisinate” (when grapes shrivel and sugars become concentrated) before fermentation. The flavor is intense, sometimes overwhelming — reminiscent of sucking a sugar cube. The high sugar content, like port, also enables enjoyment for up to a year after opening.
There are four major types of dessert wines, each reaching their sweetness in a different fashion: late harvest, “botrytized” wines, vin santo and ice wines. Late harvest wines are currently popular with “New World” winemakers (U.S., Australia, South America). Late harvest grapes stay on the vine after the harvest is finished, gaining a sweeter, more concentrated flavor over their picked brethren. The resultant wine tastes more sugary than normal table wines, but is quite refreshing. Several grapes amenable to late harvest methods are Zinfandel, Muscat (an aromatic grape usually reserved for dessert wines), Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc. Every grape exhibits a different personality, so approach each dessert wine variety with an open palate.
Botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”) is a fungus that attacks grapes during harvest, when the weather conditions are warm and humid. Noble rot causes the fruit to shrivel and dehydrate, so when the grapes are harvested and crushed, the juice is intense with sweetness. Germany and France are experts at this method. Sauternes, a wine region in Bordeaux, France, produces primarily dessert wines and uses Semillon grapes. The Germans use Riesling, and call their botrytized wine “Trockenbeerenauslese.”
Italian vin santo comes from just-ripe grapes, cut off the vine and allowed to air dry to concentrate their sugars. This method creates some kick-ass alcohol content, reaching as high as 17 percent (most table wines fall between 10-15 percent). A variation of this method is also used to produce vin de paille, an ancient dessert wine experiencing a resurgence right now in Europe.
The last method, and probably the least recognized, is vin de glaciere, ice wine, or Eiswein, all different names for the same method of freezing the grapes on the vine (or after picking) in order to concentrate sugars. It produces a wine that is very sweet, but balanced and not overwhelming. The grapes used are normally Muscat, Semillon or Riesling.
White varietal dessert wines — Semillon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, vin santo — are best enjoyed well chilled at 57-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Red varietals — Zinfandel, Black Muscat — should be slightly chilled to 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Often they are sold in half bottles (375 milliliters), because the rich, almost syrupy contents should be sipped, not slammed.