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Get to Know Sweet Red Wines

There’s more to red wine than just big, bold, and dry

Janice Williams By December 21, 2021
dessert and wine pairings
Dessert and wine pairings. Photo by arinahabich/iStock.

Here’s an idea: Instead of eating dessert, drink it.

Believe it or not, there are wines on the market capable of satisfying sweet-tooth cravings, and, no, not all of them are Moscato. Some come in the form of luscious and delectable red dessert wines. 

“They have such a concentration of flavors. You taste a red dessert wine and the immediate reaction is like, ‘Oh, whoa!’ It’s like time stops for a second, and you’re instantly immersed in all the flavors you taste in the wine,” says Jeff Harding, a sommelier and wine director at Waverly Inn in New York City.

As tasty as red dessert wines can be, though, they’ve fallen out of popularity over the years, as there appear to be fewer occasions to drink them. And it doesn’t help that cheap commercial versions have damaged their reputation.

Which is a shame, because sweet reds can be exciting wines — especially the ones from Italy.

How sweet red wines are made

There are different ways to make sweet red wines. Sometimes, it’s as simple as stopping fermentation early so that the grapes retain a higher level of natural sugars. To the northwest of Asti in Piedmont, winemakers will stop fermentation of Malvasia di Schierano grapes to make the sweet, low-alcohol Malvasia di Castelnuovo don Bosco, which is found in still and sparkling styles. 

Another way to produce sweet wines is to let grapes hang on the vine for longer than normal; as the grapes begin to dehydrate, the sugar within them becomes concentrated. They are known as late harvest wines, or Vendemmia Tardiva. An example would be the rich and plummy Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale from Puglia.

Another technique involves drying the grapes; the winemakers pick the grapes and lay them out to dry. In many places, this was traditionally done on straw mats, resulting in the wines being called straw wines, though in Italy the name is the passito method. It can also be done on special racks or in the sun. As the water inside the grapes evaporates, the fruit shrivels and begins to turn into a raisin, and concentrates the sugars inside. 

By allowing the grapes to dry out, the natural moisture in the fruit diminishes and leaves behind a high sugar content, which, in turn, increases the sugar level in the wine during fermentation.

“That’s an ancient technique,” says Alan Tardi CSW, author of “Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink” and the James Beard Award-winning “Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo.”

“Italians would harvest parts of the grape cluster and have them go through this extended drying period so that the grapes would lose a lot of moisture. They did this to make wines like Passito or Recioto, and there’s a lot of sweetness to these wines,” Tardi continues. “They have incredible density, and the texture of these wines is almost like syrup or a honey-like texture. But they have acidity and an edginess that’s quite enjoyable.” 

Winemakers in countries like Greece and Germany typically use various white grapes to make straw wines. However, in Italy, sweet wines can be made either with white or red grapes such as Sagrantino, a deep black grape commonly found in Montefalco in Umbria.

“Sagrantino is just a little wilder. It has these earthy components to it, and it’s more bitter by nature, which really helps balance out the sweetness,” says Tardi. 

That particular sweet style of red wine comes with a warning, though. “Sagrantino Passito tends to be a little pricey just because the procedure of making them is very, very time-consuming. And right off the bat, you lose about 30% of the volume of juice the grapes would create if it were going to be a regular wine, just because they lose so much of the moisture. So Sagrantino Passito has to be kind of expensive,” Tardi adds.

Another classic Italian passito wine is Recioto della Valpolicella from Valpolicella. Made from the local grapes Corvina, Rondinella, and Corvinone, with some Oseleta and Negrara, it’s full of fig, dried cherry, and spice characteristics. Brachetto grapes from Piedmont are also used this way to make lusciously sweet and fruit-forward wines. Schiava, an Italian grape from Alto-Adige, naturally offers plenty of sweet red fruit and cotton candy nuances. 

Technique and a winemaker’s discretion play a major role in the creation of these types of sweet red wines, but like with most instances of viticulture, it’s the climate and the terroir that help these wines develop their tastes. 

“It’s more about the conditions where the grapes grow — if you can leave them on the vine without them rotting and if there’s a cool windy climate where you can dry them on straws,” says Harding.

When to drink red dessert wines

There are times when red dessert wines truly shine, like, for instance, after dinner. Drink them with very dark chocolate, sweetbreads, or cheese. 

“Sweet reds are absolutely fantastic with cheese because the saltiness and the fattiness of the cheese, and the pungent quality, really elevates the sweetness of the wine. They work really well together,” says Tardi.

So the next time the plates are cleared off the table, and the server drops the dessert list, look for bottles. There might be something red, sweet, and satisfying just waiting to be explored.

3 red dessert wines to try:

bottle of Giuseppe Attanasio Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale 2017

Giuseppe Attanasio Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale 2017 ($56)

Produced by Giuseppe Attanasio in southern Puglia, the Primitivo grapes for this wine air dry in a ventilated room in the cellar for weeks on end, causing the grapes to raisin and the sugars to concentrate. The result is a dense and sweet red wine with red fruit flavors. However, it does have a savory side from spice notes, earthiness, and dusty tannins, which balances everything out.

bottle of Serego Alighieri Casal dei Ronchi Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2016

Serego Alighieri Casal dei Ronchi Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2016 ($75)

Winemakers at Serego Alighieri in Valpolicella use a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara to create this incredibly aromatic, fruity, red wine. Instead of resting on straw mats in the sun, grapes lay on bamboo racks where they dry out during the winter before fermentation. As far as taste goes, this wine is oozing in jammy plum and ripe cherry flavors. Touches of spice are also prevalent while the finish is long and rich with elegant, smooth tannins.

bottle of Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito 2007

Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito 2007 ($99)

The nose of this red dessert wine is sweet with fruity aromas of dried figs, roasted persimmons, and blackberries. The body is full and structured with plush tannins. “Paolo Bea is one of the really great Italian producers of Sagrantino, and this is an excellent example of how complex red dessert wines can be,” says Tardi.