Fortified dessert wines such as Sherry, Port, and Madeira are made by adding alcohol to still wine during the fermentation process. The addition of alcohol stops fermentation by killing the yeast, leaving behind residual, unfermented sugar from the grapes. The result is a sweet wine with an alcohol content of 15 to 20 percent. Port is a popular fortified dessert wine with a deep red color and rich, ripe flavors of dark berries, plums, and spices. Try pairing dense chocolate desserts with a Port such as Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve, ($22, at liquor stores).
Late Harvest Wines
Late Harvest Dessert Wine is made from grapes (most often Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer varities) that have been left on the vine until they are extremely ripe and sweet. During the fermentation process, the yeast working to convert the extra sweet juice into alcohol dies off before it can process all the sugar, resulting in a sweeter wine.
Riesling is a particularly good choice for making dessert wine because the grape’s naturally high acidity keeps the wine from being cloyingly sweet. It manages to be a crisp and refreshing compliment to desserts like apple pie and crème brulee, but sweet enough to finish a meal as dessert itself. When shopping for this variety of dessert wine, look for the words “late harvest” on the label, such as Hogue Cellars Late Harvest Riesling 2012, ($11, at liquor stores), or find “Vendange Tardive” on wines from France, and “spätlese” or “auslese” on German bottles.
Noble Rot Wines
While it doesn’t sound delicious, some of the most sought after dessert wines in the world are made from grapes that are, well…rotten. The fruit is covered in a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble rot,” which surrounds the grape and causes it to shrivel, leaching out much of the water and leaving behind extra sweet pulp, which the winemakers then press for juice. Making this type of dessert wine is a labor intensive, painstaking process. Imagine the tiny amounts of juice left in these shriveled grapes and how much hand-harvested fruit must be carefully picked in order to make just one bottle (thus, the wine’s très cher price). Look for Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, and wines labeled “beerenauslese” and “trockenbeerenauslese” from Germany. These lush, viscous wines are complex with flavors of honey, spice and exotic fruits, and pair well with rich desserts and cheeses. We like Heidi Schrock’s Ausbruch “On the Wings of Dawn’ 2010, ($69 for 375 ml, at liquor stores).
Freezing grapes is another way to concentrate sugars to make sweet wine. When made in the traditional way, ice wine, or “eiswein” as it is called in Germany and Austria, is left on the vine long after the typical harvest is finished until temperatures drop enough for the grapes to freeze. Workers then race to pick the frozen grapes and press them carefully so that the water content is separated (as ice) from the sweet nectar that will become the wine. Making wine this way is risky. Though vines are typically covered with nets to protect them, warm weather, rot, hungry birds and animals, and stormy weather can result in little to no harvest at all. Because grape yields are so low, true ice wine is rare and expensive. Try Inniskillin Vidal 2012 ($60 for 375 ml, at liquor stores) from the Niagara Penninsula in Canada. It is crisp, intense, and elegant and pairs beautifully with baked and fresh fruit, hazelnut cake, and crème caramel.
Dried Grape Wine
To understand this type of dessert wine, think of the difference in sweetness between a raisin and a grape. Dried fruit is sweeter because the sugar in the fruit remains after the water is evaporated. To make this kind of dessert wine, grapes are dried while still on the vine, a technique called passerillage in France or appassimento in Italy, or harvested in bunches and laid out to dry in the sun or hung from racks indoors. Either way, the result is a wine with flavors of cooked and candied fruits, honey, and spices. Look for bottles that say “vin de paille,” French for “straw wine,” because the grapes are often laid out on straw mats to dry, or “passito” on Italian labels, such as Pellegrino Passito di Pantelleria 2011, ($30, at liquor stores).