Liquids: Dessert Wine

Ask me what’s a good meal. Go ahead. My answer: any meal with wine. What’s a great meal? One that pairs a different wine with each course—including dessert. Dessert wine, you say? Absolutely. I’m talking about something rich, fruity, and flavorful, balanced with refreshing acidity that restores the palate after a delicious meal. If you’ve been turned off by some cloying, sweet imposter in the past, consider giving dessert wines another try.

Dessert wines encompass a variety of sweet wines that are typically higher in alcohol (ranging from 16 to 21 percent) than regular wine and usually more concentrated in flavor. Some are so intense, in fact, they can be dessert, but more classically they’re served with dessert to complement something usually sweeter than the wine. When a combination works, you get that aforementioned burst of refreshing acidity. What kinds of wines are we talking about? They include late-harvest wines (such as Sauternes), port, sherry, vin santo, and ice wine. While all are different from one another, they share a common bond of sweetness balanced by acidity.

The term “late harvest” on a bottle usually refers to a wine made with grapes that were picked, usually by hand, when they were very overripe. The longer grapes hang on vines past the “normal” ripening season, the sweeter they get, developing highly concentrated flavor in fruit that starts to shrivel and dry. Think of these wines as being made by pressing grapes that are practically raisins. Though many bottles are labeled “late harvest,” some European wines aren’t, the most famous of which is Sauternes, a French wine named for a district in the Bordeaux region and considered one of the best sweet wines in the world. Made with sémillon and a little bit of sauvignon blanc, the best Sauternes are produced only in good vintages (meaning the right climatic conditions), when a mold called Botrytis cinerea evaporates the water from grapes, leaving them shriveled and full of sugar. This yields wine that is rich, concentrated, and honeyed in both its aroma and flavor. The most famous Sauternes is Château d’Yquem, a wine that fetches hundreds of dollars a bottle but can be bought by the glass. Late-harvest wines from Germany bear the word beerenauslese, the term for “selected berries.” These wines, like Sauternes, are usually made from grapes infected with botrytis.

Port (or porto) is wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley that is shipped out of the city of Oporto. Port is a “fortified” wine, meaning that it is wine to which brandy is added midway through fermentation, halting the process while the wine still has plenty of natural sweetness and boosting the alcohol level to 18 to 20 percent. Port classifications include “vintage” (rich, concentrated, pricey wines made from the best grapes and growing districts), “ruby” (young, fruity, less expensive wines made from lower-quality grapes and named for their color), and “tawny” (a blend of grapes from several different vintages that can be aged in wood for as long as 40 years). Ports labeled “late-bottled vintage” (or “LBV”) and “Colheita” are made from grapes of a single vintage but of lower quality. LBVs are aged in wood for up to six years and are considered high-quality ruby, while Colheitas are aged in wood at least seven years and categorized as tawny.

While sherry, another fortified wine, is usually produced dry, one rare sweet type merits mention: Pedro Ximénez, an extremely rich, sweet wine named after a grape that plays a minor blending role in most dry sherry. These grapes are picked and then left to shrivel in the sun to concentrate their sugar content. The resulting wines, such as those from great producers like Osborne and Gonzalez Byass, achieve a level of viscosity akin to maple syrup, though they taste like deep, dried fruit.

Vin santo, a wine primarily from Italy’s Tuscany region, is made with grapes that are dried either by hanging them up or by laying them on trays in airy barns. Just as Botrytis does, this process concentrates the sugars. The wines are fermented and aged in barrels that contain madre, a “mother” residue from the previous year’s wine, and air, which lets them oxidize. They’re aged up to six years, yielding wines with a nutty-caramel flavor, a deep golden color, and an alcohol content of 14 to 17 percent.

Ice wine (or icewine or eiswein) is made with late-harvest grapes that are picked while frozen on the vine, then pressed before thawing. Ice wine is difficult to make because the trick is to get the nectar out of the grapes before the water melts into the mixture, resulting in juice that’s both rich in flavor and high in sugar and acid. Though they originated in Germany, ice wines are also made in Austria and Canada. In fact, thanks to the innovations of one producer in the Niagara region of Ontario—Inniskillin—Canada is considered the most widely respected producer of ice wines.