Erik Neilson on August 18, 2016 0 Comments There is no section of any wine list that intimidates most casual wine drinkers more than that of dessert wines. For those who are familiar only with dry table wines, the sweet, cloying flavors and syrupy consistency associated with dessert wines can often be quite a shock — even polarizing. What people often miss when immediately dismissing dessert wines as being not for them is that these wines can provide incredible counterpoint to the food they’re typically served with. Some wines are dessert in and of themselves, served to be enjoyed on their own and without any other distractions. New to dessert wines? You’re not alone! Here’s a primer to help you learn more about one of the most interesting sectors of the wine world. What Defines “Dessert Wine”? It’s easy for a producer, bartender or sommelier to sell a particular wine as a “dessert wine”, but what exactly does that mean? The answer isn’t actually quite as ambiguous as you might think. According to the TTB, any wine over 14% ABV must be classified as a dessert wine. This is why 14% is the highest ABV that most red table wines will get to before being bottled, as many producers attempt to boost ABV but don’t want their wines classified as dessert wines. This is somewhat confusing to many, as there are plenty of sweet wines that fall well below 14%, as well as dry wines that extend beyond this percentage. While official classification may come down to ABV, most consumers and somms look for only one characteristic when determining dessert wines: residual sugars. When grapes are fermented to become wine, their sugars are consumed by yeast, creating a byproduct that many wine drinkers are all too familiar with: alcohol. If you’ve ever had a high alcohol wine that was so dry and tannic you found yourself puckering the entire time, you can rest assured that in this instance, there was very little residual sugar left over in the wine, if any. Dessert wines are an entirely different story, as the yeast cells in the wine die before ever being able to gobble up the excess leftover sugar. The result? Dessert wine. Types of Dessert Wines As one might expect, there are a number of different ways in which to go about producing dessert wines. Incomplete Fermentation The production style mentioned above — in which fermentation isn’t allowed to finish — is perhaps the most common. Yeasts are often inhibited by the addition of sulfur, but fermentation can also be halted via temperature shifts. There are a great deal of well-known wines that are produced this way, including Moscato, Port, Ice Wine, Madeira, Masala and others. Late Harvest Another common way to produce sweet wines is via what are commonly referred to as late harvest techniques. In these scenarios, winemakers allow their grapes to overripen by delaying the harvest, resulting in high concentrations of sugar and assisted in large part by dehydration of the grapes. Many German Rieslings are produced in such a manner and actually can be classified by harvest conditions. Sauternes is also made this way, as are a variety of dessert wines produced throughout Australia and North America. Allow Grapes to Dry on Vine There’s another dessert wine production method that somewhat mirrors late harvest techniques, and it’s allowing the grapes to dry partially on the vine before they are picked. This results in thicker skins and higher levels of acidity, both of which can vary in intensity depending upon how long the grapes are allowed to raisin. There are few regions of the world in which producing wine from dried or partially dried grapes has survived, although Italy is an excellent example, producing wines such as Amarone, Recioto and Vin Santo via this technique. Fortification Finally, we come to fortification. Fortified wines are those which have had distilled alcohol added as a method of boosting ABV. In this production method, grapes are first allowed to undergo fermentation, after which distilled spirits are added to stop fermentation and keep the leftover residual sugar from converting into alcohol. Port and sherry fall into this category, both of which are partially fortified. Some fortified wines are blended to enhance consistency and smoothness. Dessert Wines You Need to Try In attempting to get to know dessert wines better, the amount of options available at even modest wine shops can be intimidating. This is especially true considering how most people are familiar primarily with dry wines. For a strong first impression, it’s best to stick with one of the classics — here are just a few examples that you need to try. Click Here to Shop For Dessert Wine on Amazon 1. Heaven on Earth Muscat d’Alexandrie If you’re familiar with South African dry wines, there’s a good chance you know just how complex they can be. Dessert wines from South Africa are no different, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than Heaven on Earth’s Muscat d’Alexandrie. This naturally sweet Muscat is made from grapes that are dried just slightly on a bed of hay and rooibos, giving it a unique blend of flavors that call to mind honey and ripe apricot. 2. Barolo Chinato Cocchi Looking for a wine that you can enjoy as an aperitif and after you finally finish the meal? Look no further than Barolo Chinato Cocchi. Made from Barolo — one of the world’s most highly regarded reds — the wine features an addition of rhubarb, quinine, mace and various spices to give it its characteristic digestive qualities. There is perhaps no better dessert wine to make room for at the holiday table. 3. Dessert Semillon Riverina GI Semillon is a grape often used to produce semi-dry white wines, but it can also be pushed to produce sweet wines under the right conditions. The Dessert Semillon Riverina GI from the Riverina area of Australia is a fine example of how this can be done. The grapes in this wine have undergone noble rot, which results in strong flavor concentrations. Think honey, citrus and fresh peach, and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect with this wine. Dessert wines may seem intimidating, but they don’t have to be. Know what you’re getting into, and you’ll have a wealth of fun experiences ahead.