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Ultimate Guide to Dessert Wine 

Ultimate Guide to Dessert Wine 

What’s dessert without a glass of wine? Nothing.

A glass of dessert wine is the perfect way to end a meal. However, not just any glass of wine will do.

You will need a glass of dessert wine that complements the dessert perfectly. Luckily you will learn everything there is to know about dessert wines.

What Is Dessert Wine?

Dessert wine is an umbrella category that refers to a group of sweet wines served at the end of a meal. Dessert wines have a sweeter flavor and higher alcohol profile than other wines.

In addition, there are quite a bit of fortified wines, sweet red wines, and sparkling wines that fall under the dessert wine category.

Dessert wines can be served with dessert, but they can also be served with cheese plates.

How Are Dessert Wines Made?

Dessert wines are made using techniques such as late harvest, noble rot, and ice, which give the wine its characteristic flavor. Let’s delve a little deeper into each winemaking technique.

What Is Late Harvest?

Late harvest refers to harvesting grapes later in the season. The longer the grapes are allowed stay on the vine, they get riper, and the sugar levels explode.

Grapes can be harvested 1-2 months after the initial harvest wraps.

Generally, any grape can be harvested later in the season. However, some grapes are more popular than others.

For example, winemakers in the Loire Valley usually wait until later in the season to harvest Chenin Blanc grapes to produce dessert wines.

In contrast, Riesling is the preferred late-harvest grape for German winemakers. However, they also harvest Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris grapes later in the season.

What Is Noble Rot?

Noble rot is another technique winemakers use. The world rot is a turn-off because no one wants to eat or drink rotten food.

However, noble rot wines are an experience you don’t want to miss out on. In short, noble rot is a technique that leaves grapes on the vine in foggy, humid climates. 

A grey fungus called Botrytis Cinera or noble rot develops on the outside of the grapes. The noble rot sucks all the moisture out of the grapes, making them shrivel like raisins.

The good thing about noble rot is that it concentrates sugar levels, leaving behind extremely sweet grape juice.

Some of the priciest and most tasty wines are created from noble rot. For example, the famous Bordeaux Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji are made from noble rot.

What Is Ice Wine?

Ice wine or Eiswein is another technique used in winemaking. The ice wine technique is one of the most complicated styles of wine to master, and a bottle of this wine comes at a hefty price.

Ice wine can only be made in vineyards when the temperature falls below freezing. The low temperature causes the water within the grapes to freeze.

The grapes are then harvested and crushed while the water is frozen. Typically, this process occurs in the middle of the night when the temperatures are the coldest.

Due to the extreme conditions needed for making ice wines, they can only be produced in cooler regions such as Canada and Germany.

Typically, Reisling grapes are used to make ice wines. However, red ice wines can be made from Cabernet Franc grapes.

As I mentioned above, because ice wine is so rare and difficult to produce, it costs a hefty price. Nevertheless, ice wines are a treat you can enjoy if you can afford them.

What Is Passito?

Passito, also known as passerillage or appassimento, is a technique that allows grapes to dry out to concentrate the sugars.

It is similar to noble rot as the wine is made from a raisin. However, no fungus dries out the grapes.

First, the grapes, while they are still attached to the vine. Next, the grapes are laid in straw mates or hung from the ceiling in a warm room to dehydrate them further.

The most popular passito wines are Vin Santo and Passito di Pantelleria. These wines pair perfectly with several cakes, tarts, and other decadent desserts.

It’s also a great wine if you don’t have enough room for dessert but still want something sweet to satisfy your craving.

What Is Sparkling Dessert Wine?

Sparkling dessert wines are known for their bubbly texture due to carbon dioxide. However, some sparkling wines are considered dessert wines.

The carbonation and high acidity levels give the wine a less sweet flavor. The sweet aroma is also very misleading.

For example, Demi-sec Moscato has a sweeter flavor than demi-sec Champagne even though they have similar sugar levels.

Therefore, you must pay attention to the label when looking for sweet dessert wine.

Demi-sec refers to an off-dry sparkling wine, while Amabile is a slightly sweet Italian wine. Semi-socco is an off-dry Italian wine, while dux is a French sweet wine.

Dolce/dulce refers to a sweet Italian or Spanish wine, while moelleux refers to some sweet French wines.

What Are Some Names of Dessert Wines?

There are many types of dessert wines. These are the most popular types of dessert wines.


Bordeaux is known for its Sauternes. This famous wine is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes infected with noble rot.

The flavors range from roasted pineapple, apricot, ginger, and honey.

It pairs perfectly with BBQ pork ribs, blue cheese, pineapple desserts, roasted sweet potatoes, and rich desserts such as creme brulee. 


Riesling is the IT grape in Germany. Riesling is known for its aromatic scent and intensely sweet flavor.

Quality Rieslings can range from slightly off-dry to robustly sweet flavors. These wines have the perfect blend of sugars and acids with notes of stone fruit and flowers.

There is a lot of information on German wine labels. For example, trocken translates to dry, so it should be avoided if you want dessert wine. 

In contrast, feinherb, liebliche, and suss indicate sweet wines.

Riesling has an apricot flavor and floral fragrance. Sweet Rieslings pair perfectly with fried, grilled, or jerk chicken and spicy Asian food.

Sweeter wines pair well with blue cheese, fruity desserts, and Peking duck.


As the name implies, Banyuls is the name of the town this wine is produced in. Banlyuls fall under the category of fortified wines.

Banyuls is made from Grenache grapes. Once the Grenache grapes are picked and pressed, a distilled spirit is added to the wine to arrest fermentation to maintain the wine’s sweet flavor.

Banyuls has flavors of roasted strawberry, chocolate, mint, and prunes. It pairs perfectly with blue cheese, sweet and sour chicken, berries, melons, and teriyaki beef.

Quarts de Chaume

Quart de Chaume is a botrytized or noble rot wine. Quarts de Chaume is made from Chenin Blanc, a white grape commonly found in the Loire valley.

Young Quarts de Chaume has a flowery, fruity profile. In contrast, aged Quarts de Chaume has a more complex flavor.

On average, Quart de Chaume has flavors such as white flower, pear, honey, spice, and apricot. It pairs perfectly with several blue cheese, lobster, roasted chicken, cornish hens, and glazed duck.

Ice Wine 

As I mentioned above, ice wine is expensive because it is difficult to make.

Although ice wines can be produced in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, Canada is by far the biggest producer of ice wine.

Riesling or Vidal grapes are preferred for making ice wines. They have a robust sweet honey-like flavor that is reminiscent of botrytized wine.

Sweet Red Wine

The demand for quality sweet red wine has decreased. However, there are inexpensive commercial sweet red wines that are pretty popular.

Nevertheless, there are a few high-quality Italian sweet red wines worth noting. For example, Brachetto d Acqui is a bubbly rose wine produced from Brachetto grapes.

This wine is known for its floral strawberry fragrance and pairs perfectly with cured meats like ham.

Late-harvest white wines are also made from Malbec, Zinfindel, and Mouvedre grapes. These wines are sweet and have a higher alcohol content.

Lastly, there are also Lambrusco sweet red wines. This sparkling wine has subtle flavors or yeast with dominant berry flavors.

Sweet Lambrusco wines will be labeled Dulce or Amabile, so keep this in mind when shopping for this wine.


Brut is probably the most popular type of Champagne. However, the sweetness levels of Champagne can range from doux to demi-sec, which are perfect for dessert.

Demi-sec Champagne is the perfect blend of tropical and stone fruits like apricots and pink grapefruit with ideal sugar and acidity levels.

It pairs perfectly with light but fruity desserts such as berry mousse or fruit tart and lobster poached in butter.


Madeira is also a fortified wine. Winemakers have been making Madeira wine off the coast of Portugal for more than 300 years.

It came about after winemakers discovered exporting wine in the hot cargo bay of ships improved its flavor. Since then, winemakers have been heat aging the wine to make them taste better.

Madeira has flavors of caramel, coffee, and dates. However, sweeter Madeira wines such as Malmsey have roasted nuts and fruit notes.

Madeira wines pair perfectly with decadent chocolate desserts, nutty desserts, and fruit tarts or gratins.

Can Sweet Wines Be Aged?

Yes, sweet wines can be aged. Some sweet wines, such as port wine, are known for their acidity. 

For example, vintage port wine is aged for a minimum of 15 years. In contrast, wines such as Sauternes and Tokaj can be aged for decades.

You would think that aging sweet wines eliminate their sweet flavor. However, it’s just the opposite. Even though the wine will develop other flavors, its sweetness levels will remain intact.

How Long Can Dessert Wine Be Stored?

Dessert wines remain suitable for 2-3 weeks after opening. However, the key is to store the wine properly so it lasts as long as possible.

When storing dessert wines, there are multiple factors you should consider.


Heat is the enemy of wine. Temperatures that exceed 70°F cause the wine to age quickly.

Essentially the wine becomes cooked, causing the flavors to become dull, flat, and nonexistent.

Ideally, the wine should be stored between temperatures of 45°F and 65°F. However, 55°F tends to be the sweet spot for dessert wines. 


Some winemakers believe dry air dries out the cork and allows air to enter the bottle of dessert wine. Exposure to air causes the wine to spoil.

Although these statements are factual, it is unlikely that the average consumer will experience this unless they reside in a desert or arctic climate.

It should be safe if your wine is stored in weather that has a 50-80% percent humidity level. 

Setting a pan of water in the storage area can help offset exposure to air. However, if your climate is extremely damp, the pan of water could encourage mold growth.

Therefore a dehumidifier may be the better option if you live in drier, desert-like climates.


When it comes to wine, angles matter. The angle you store the wine can drastically affect its shelf life. As I mentioned above, if the dessert wine is exposed to air, it causes spoilage and depletes its flavor.

If the wine pushes up against the cork, it decreases the risk that air can infiltrate the cork. Therefore, you should store dessert wine at a 45-degree angle with the cork pointing to the ground.

At this angle, the wine will continuously touch the cork preventing air from penetrating it over time.

Riddling Racks

The Veuve Clicquot Champagne created riddling racks during the 1800s to store bottles of sparkling wine. Historically riddling racks were used to store bottles of wine at the perfect angle. 

Riddling referred to rotating wine bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position over a few days. This process was called disgorgement.

It moved the sediment or lees (dead yeast cells) that accumulated at the bottom of the bottle to the neck, making them easier to remove.

Riddling racks are beautiful. There are free-standing and mounted riddling racks; some can even store the wine in different positions.

Riddling racks are an excellent investment if you want a hassle-free way to store your wine and show off your wine collection to your guests.


Wines and lights do not mix, so it’s best to keep wine away from direct sunlight, especially if it’s sunlight. 

UV rays released by the sun may cause the wine to age and deteriorate. For this reason, wines are bottled in dark bottles to limit their exposure to light.

This is why wines are typically stored in wine cellars. However, since many people do not have a wine cellar in their house, dessert wines should be stored in a dark, dimly lit environment.


Technically, dessert wines can be stored in the fridge. However, dessert wines can only be stored in the fridge for a short time. Any longer than a few months and your dessert wine will be ruined.

The average fridge temperature is about 45°F, which is safe enough to store perishable food items like meat and cheese.

However, this temperature is not ideal for dessert wines. If you want to store your wine in the fridge, it’s best to keep it in a wine cooler.

Do not store your dessert wine in the fridge. As the wine starts to freeze, it will expand and possibly push the cork out of the bottle.


Lastly, some winemakers believe that vibrations can have a detrimental effect on dessert wine. The theory is that vibrations can accelerate the chemical reactions that occur in wine.

Vibrations can disturb the sediment that accumulates at the bottom of the wine bottle, making it harder to filter out the deposit when you are serving the wine. 

Some people allege the vibrations emitted from electric appliances such as the fridge or stove can affect the wine’s quality.

However, there is no evidence to support electrical appliance vibration claims. Vibrations should not be a problem unless you live near a train station or club that consistently plays loud music.

What’s the Best Way To Serve Dessert Wine?

On average, dessert wines with an intensely sweet flavor are served in small potions of 175ml so the drinker can sip the wine. However, most sweet wines come in a half-bottle size that’s apt for their intense yet complex flavors.

Nevertheless, you can also serve dessert wines in regular wine glasses. Standard wine glasses allow you to swirl the dessert wine around the glass so you can get its full aroma.

Dessert wines should also be served slightly chilled. If it is too cold, you will not be able to experience the sweet flavor the wine is known for.

Final Thoughts

As long as you are at the legal drinking age, everyone should be able to enjoy a glass of dessert wine with their dessert. After all, it’s the perfect way to end a meal.

You don’t even need the dessert. You can skip it and indulge in a glass of dessert wine, especially now that you have become knowledgeable in all things dessert wine.