Dessert Wines

Dessert wines – Many people just pour them over high-quality vanilla bean ice cream with fresh berries or shaved dark chocolate atop. But a quality dessert wine is so much more than just a sweet pick-me-up or a syrup for frozen milch. During the holidays you should have a few bottles on hand.  Don’t be shy about using them as after-dinner digestifs enjoyed in a tiny glass, as the basis for meat marinades and vinaigrettes, to splash into Spanish cava or champagne for a festive flair, and to accompany holiday desserts.  At the end of a meal, a complex, layered dessert wine is both dessert and digestif, particularly if you serve it with some crisp fruit and mellow cheeses. Some dessert wines, particularly whites, are mellow enough to be served with roasted quail and other savory treats. During the holidays, a good dessert wine makes an instant course for a quickly pulled together dinner, and can even be used as part of the preparation.

Some easy pairings for late harvest and port-style reds:

  • Dates stuffed with cream cheese and topped with a raspberry
  • Small puff pastry circlets topped with cream fraiche, berries, and shaved chocolate
  • Sesame glazed walnuts
  • Slices of pear and apple
  • Savory cheeses—Gorgonzola, Stilton, Manchego

Quick pairings for white late harvest and dessert wines:

  • White chocolate brownies
  • Puff pastry cups with fresh peaches, crème fraiche and toasted almonds
  • Baklava
  • Fruit and cheese quiche
  • Tapioca or pudding topped with fruit and crème fraiche

While most people instinctively pair a sweet with a sweet, the oils and sugar in chocolate and dessert dishes coat the palate and subdue the layered flavors of a great dessert wine. When I want the wine to star, I serve nuts, cheese, and savory bites.   

Try basting a quail with a dessert white or red while roasting, and prepare a long-grain rice stuffing with fruits that have been steeped in a cup of the wine—dark fruits for a red dessert wine, white fruits like apricots and blood oranges in white dessert wine. The savory elements of the fowl and rice are a great marriage with dessert wines. Look for dessert wines that are not too rich and pruney—they should have lifted acidity and clearly definable varietal flavors.

Well-crafted dessert wines are difficult and challenging to make. Unless extreme care is used in the winemaking process, the heavier sugar and alcohol content of dessert wines can overwhelm the flavor of the grapes. Muscat Canelli is probably the first sweet wine that most people encounter—a sweet, white wine varietal with a faintly flowery aroma, used to make light, and sometimes fizzy dessert wines.

Dessert wines, particularly those labeled “late harvest” are generally made from very, very ripe grapes which have been allowed to hang on the vines long after the regular harvest season has ended. The grapes turn slightly raisiny, losing their moisture content and developing strong sugars and concentrated flavors.

After harvesting these late grapes, generally at a high sugar content of 28 degrees Brix or more, the winemaker begins fermentation. A ‘late harvest’ wine is allowed to ferment until the rising alcohol kills the yeast and stops the fermentation naturally. Sometimes, however, the winemaker may decide to make a fortified wine, particularly if the potential alcohol will be higher than 17-18%. If the fermentation were allowed to proceed naturally, the yeast might consume too much of the sugar, resulting in a low sugar/high alcohol dessert wine that is unbalanced and hot. To prevent this, the winemaker kills the yeast by adding grape brandy to the wine when the sugar content in the fermenting juice drops to exactly the level he wishes to retain in his dessert wine. The amount of brandy added is not extreme—generally around one cup per sixty gallon barrel.

The result is a sweet and balanced dessert wine.

It can also mean that the winemaker must stay awake all night babysitting the fermenting wine, since the grape brandy must be added at precisely the right moment, or the entire project is a flop. One year at Justin Winery, back when the crush pad was right outside the inn’s two rooms, sleepy winemaker Steve Glossner was sleeping on a lawn lounger on the crush pad, trying to stay awake long enough to fortify their port-style wine. He suddenly realized it was time to add the brandy, but when he tried to open the brandy drum he couldn’t find the odd-shaped wrench used to turn the nut on top. In desperation, he began banging on the lid with a wrench, trying to knock it loose. Since the winery also had bed-and-breakfast guests staying overnight, owner Debby Baldwin stumped downstairs in her robe to put an end to the racket, but when the problem was made clear to her, she too picked up a wrench and began banging on the drum. The inn’s guests were treated to the sight of a disheveled winemaker and berobed hostess beating on a metal drum under a full moon. Sort of a wicca moment . . . and a story that illustrates the dedication and effort that go into making a fine dessert wine.


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