Wine News / February 13, 2013

Exploring Dessert Wines, Part 1

Exploring Dessert Wines

For many, dessert is the best part of the meal, and for others it is the perfect ending to a perfect meal. I believe that dessert is the perfect compliment to a fantastic dinner and if I happen to have a great wine to go along, then the night just got that much better! Before I get into the facts I want to share this little story with you on how I turned a skeptic into a dessert wine lover.

Working in the restaurant business I have heard the phrase “Oh no, I don’t like dessert wine… Port and Sherry are just not my thing,” one too many times. One night, while working in one of my restaurants, I heard a similar comment from a customer who was looking at our menu of fantastic dessert wines. I decided to nip any negative comments in the bud and wanted to show my customers that what they’ve been avoiding may actually be something they love!

I told the guest that I would be back with a flight of wines that would compliment her dessert and she could have a full glass on the house of whichever one she liked. She agreed and said, “Ok, great, as long as it is not Port or Sherry.” I smiled and knew exactly what to give her. I brought her a Late Harvest, an Eiswein, and a Sweet Sparkling Moscato. At first, she looked at me funny, as she was not familiar with what she was trying. I happily gave her more information about each wine and why I chose them for her.

Let’s jump ahead a few minutes, when my customer decided she loved the Sparkling Moscato and the Eiswein – she did like sweet, she just needed a certain kind of sweet. I explained that these were both dessert wines, but they have less of a raisinated flavor (something you’ll notice in Port). She just needed to taste different fruit flavors to discover that she did like dessert wines. She was extremely happy and honestly didn’t know that there were different types of dessert wines out there, other than the famous Port and Sherry! 

Choosing a dessert wine

When choosing a dessert wine, it is important to remember that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. In the story above, the customer had ordered poached pear with banana tuile and hazelnut crumble. I knew the sweetness of all three wines I chose for her would certainly attract the flavors in the dish and be sweet enough to compliment as well. Dessert wines can be made in many ways, below we will explore all the options available. So the next time you go out to a store or are browsing a menu, you will have a rough idea of what you may want.

Types of dessert wine 


We will start with Fortified Dessert Wine, which means it is a wine with a spirit added to it. Sherry, one of these wines, can be misunderstood, as it is certainly an acquired taste. Sherry is fermented dry, but the sweet dessert type is enhanced with Pedro Ximénez (PX) grapes after fermentation. After fermentation is complete, it then gets an addition of brandy. The wine goes through an additional process known as Solera, which mixes old and new wines, making each bottle a blend of old and new harvests. You will notice Sherry to be dry or sweet, with possibly a nutty and/or slight raisin taste. Choose a sweet one to enjoy as or with dessert – I’d recommend a good Baklava.


The second most common fortified dessert wine is Port from the Douro Valley in Portugal. It is usually a sweet red wine, but can also come in dry, semi-dry and even white as well. Port is fortified wine with brandy added to it. There can be several different styles of port such as Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage. Port is either bottle aged (vintage) or wood barrel aged.

Ruby Port is a great beginner Port for consumers, it is young, fruit forward, and goes well with milk chocolate and blue cheese. Tawny Port is slightly sweeter than Ruby Port but is lighter in color and body. Because Tawny spends more time in wood, it develops nuttier characteristics along with carmelization notes. Generally on the label you will notice a 10, 20 or 30 – these are the ages in which the Port was blended. Tawny Port also goes very well with chocolate and/or cheddar cheese. Vintage Port is a blend of grapes from different vineyards; usually one vintage goes into this wine.  Vintage Port usually spends about six months aging in oak and then is transferred, unfiltered with no oxidation to the bottle for further aging, sometimes up to twenty years. Because of this long aging process, the sediment in the wine may be heavy and will benefit from decanting before consumption.


In Part 2 of this post, we’ll explore more of the lesser-known dessert wines any why you may want to add them to your must-try list. Stay tuned!

– Sara Lehman



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