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From Sweet to Fortified: A Guide to Dessert Wines

Everything you ever needed to know about pairing sweet wines

Vicki Denig By July 27, 2022
people walking through Inniskillin winery courtyard
Inniskillin winery courtyard, one of the oldest wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo courtesy of Inniskillin Winery.

Although often overlooked, well-made dessert wines offer delicious drinking. Not only are these liquid sweet treats the ideal end to a leisurely meal, but they also pair perfectly with savory snacks and cheese.

However, not all dessert wines are the same. Depending on the region, style, and grape varieties used, each and every dessert wine offers its own unique adventure to be discovered — simply put, not all dessert wines are “just sweet.” 

Ready to explore? You’re in for a treat.

Quick Facts

  • Key countries: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Canada
  • Key styles: Late harvest, fortified, Botrytis, ice wine
  • Main grapes: Malvasia, Touriga Nacional, Sémillon, Grenache, Riesling, and more
  • Benchmark producers: Broadbent, Osborne, Château d’Yquem, Château Coutet, Weingut Keller, Egon Müller, Inniskillin, and beyond 

What is dessert wine?

Dessert wine is wine that is bottled with significant amounts of naturally occurring, residual sugar, as opposed to being fermented to dryness. As to be expected, these wines are noticeably sweet on the palate.

Where is dessert wine made?

Dessert wine is made across numerous regions in the world, though the most popular are Portugal’s Madeira and Douro, Port wine’s home base; Spain’s southerly Jerez; France’s Bordeaux, Loire Valley, and Roussillon; Germany’s Mosel; and beyond. 

Which grape varieties are used in dessert wine?

The grape varieties used in dessert wine production depend on the region from which the wine comes. In Portugal’s Madeira, Malvasia and Boal are the most common grapes, whereas Touriga Nacional is most popular in Port. In Jerez, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are the backbones of sweet Sherry wines. In the south of France, Grenache is commonly used in the fortified wines of Rivesaltes and Maury, though Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are used for the sweet wines of Bordeaux. In Germany, sweet wines are most often made from Riesling. 

What are the main styles of dessert wine?

Fortified
Madeira, Port, and Sherry are three of the wine world’s most popular styles of fortified wines. The process of fortification includes halting a wine’s fermentation with the addition of a neutral alcohol distillate. The presence of alcohol kills the yeasts, which in turn, leaves ample residual sugar in the wine. However, due to the addition of the distillate, these wines tend to pack a serious punch alcoholically, generally clocking in between 17% and 20% ABV.

Late Harvest
Winemakers choose to leave grapes on the vines for additional hang time, which allows the berries to ripen more, and in turn, elevate their sugar content. 

Botrytis
Botrytized wines are those made from very ripe grapes that have been infected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” After the skin of the grapes is penetrated, the water inside evaporates, concentrating the grapes. It takes very specific conditions for this to happen — moist, but not wet, or else the grapes will rot. This is the most common method used to produce sweet wines in Bordeaux. 

Passito 
Passito-style wine making is most popular in Italy’s sweet wine production. It is often used in Tuscany’s Vin Santo production, as well as in Valpolicella’s Recioto and Amarone production. Late-harvested grapes are laid out to dry, often on straw mats, or hung in special rooms. This process causes the grapes to lose their water content and shrivel, therefore concentrating their sugars. The grapes are only fermented once they are semi-dried.

Ice Wine
Ice wine is one of the hardest and most labor-intensive wines to make. To make ice wine, producers harvest their grapes, often early in the morning, in subzero temperatures while the grapes are somewhat frozen. The frozen fruit is then brought back to the winery and pressed, allowing the sugary, concentrated juice to flow from the berries. These small amounts of precious juice are used to create marvelously sweet wines that are some of the most beloved in the world by dessert wine aficionados. 

Who are the benchmark producers of dessert wine? 

Key producers of dessert wine are located all throughout the world. Broadbent is one of the leading names for Madeira, whereas Osborne, Barbadillo, and Lustau are leading producers of Sherry. In France, Château d’Yquem is undeniably the most sought-after producer of Sauternes, though Château Coutet provides a much more budget-friendly alternative. Top German Riesling ice wine producers include Weingut Keller, Egon Müller, and Dönnhoff, while Canada’s Inniskillin makes a highly sought-after ice wine. In Vouvray, Domaine Huet is a benchmark for sweet, Chenin Blanc-based dessert wines — and the list goes on and on.

5 dessert wine producers to buy now:

Graham’s

Graham’s is undeniably one of the most important and pioneering names in all of the Port wine industry. Founded by brothers William and John in 1820, the brand has become a leading name for innovation and premium Port. In 1970, Graham’s was acquired by the Symington family, another leading name in the Port wine industry. The aged tawny ports at Graham’s have undeniably proven to the industry just how long-lasting these fortified wines can be — and their non-traditional use of clear glass bottlings allows their lucky owners to see the changing amber hues over time. In addition to their multi-vintage wines, Graham’s also crafts a number of single-vintage bottlings every year. 

bottle of Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port

Graham's 20 Year Tawny Port (~$65)

Although many tawny Ports boast a number on their label, what’s to be found in the bottle may not be exactly what you think. In terms of year age, the number reflected is an average of what’s inside the bottle — meaning that 20-year Ports can be produced from a combination of Ports with five years of age and 30 years of age, 15 years and 25 years in age, and so on. Similar to non-vintage Champagnes, these non-vintage dessert wines are great representations of an estate’s style — and this complex, intensely flavored tawny from Graham’s is a great place to start. 

bottle of Graham's Single Harvest Tawny Port

Graham's Single Harvest Tawny Port (~$359)

In contrast to the non-vintage Port above, this Single Harvest Tawny Port indicates that all fruit used to create this wine comes from the same harvest. Like non-fortified wines, single-vintage Ports also reflect vintage variation, meaning that vintage reports actually do matter; 1994 was deemed one of the most classic and exceptional vintages of the century. This long-aged wine will continue to withstand time in the cellar, though cracking into it now will promise an equally delicious time. Due to the neutral distillate presence from the fortification process, fortified wines can be enjoyed for up to a month after opening.

Château Coutet

Located in the Barsac region of Bordeaux, Château Coutet is one of the oldest producers of Sauternes wines. The estate’s roots date back to the 13th century, and Thomas Jefferson himself once declared Coutet’s wines the best in Sauternes. Today, the estate’s flagship dessert wine is crafted mostly from Sémillon and is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. Coutet boasts the longest cellar in the region, clocking in at an impressive 360-plus feet. The name Coutet is derived from the word for “knife” in the local Gascon dialect, which pays homage to the rip-roaring acidity found in the estate’s wines.  

bottle of Château Coutet Premier Cru Classe, Barsac

Château Coutet Sauternes Barsac 2019 (Pre-Arrival)

This world-famous dessert wine from Château Coutet is produced mostly from botrytized  Sémillon rounded out with smaller amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. The wine ages for 18 months in French oak barrels, of which 70 to 100% are new. For liquid gold in one of its most tangible — and drinkable — formats, look no further than this coveted cuvée. 

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Note: this bottle is available for pre-order 

bottle of Château Coutet Cuvee Madame Barsac

Château Coutet Cuvée Madame 2001 (~$324)

In addition to the winery’s flagship dessert cuvée, Château Coutet also makes an even more premium dessert wine, Cuvée Madame de Château de Coutet. The wine is produced from 100% Sémillon and aged for three years in 100% new French oak barrels. Additionally, the wine is only made in certain years; it has only been produced seven times since 1989. Only 1,200 bottles of this precious wine are ever crafted, meaning that production is extremely limited.

Lustau

Since its founding in 1896, Lustau has produced some of the highest quality — and one of the biggest selections — of Sherry wines on the market. The story begins with José Ruis-Berdejo, who began crafting wine and selling it to Sherry producers back in 1896. His son-in-law, Emilio Lustau Ortega, began to build his own brands and started exporting Sherry just a few years later. In 1990, Lustau merged with family-owned Luis Caballero to expand its reach, and today, the company owns six bodegas in the heart of Jerez. Lustau wines range in style, price point, and flavor profile, meaning there’s truly a bottle out there for every palate preference. 

bottle of Emilio Lustau Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Pedro Ximénez

Lustau Pedro Ximenez San Emilio Sherry NV (~$29)

For an entry-level dive into what sweet Sherry is all about, look no further than the San Emilio expression from Lustau. To create this special cuvée, Lustau dries out Pedro Ximenez grapes in the sun until they are almost fully raisinated, then ferments slowly prior to halting the fermentation with a neutral spirit. The wine then spends 12 years aging oxidatively — that is, in contact with a decent amount of air — which creates savory flavors of dried figs, caramel, and grilled nuts in the final product. 

bottle of Emilio Lustau Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Amontillado del Puerto Jose Luis González Obregón

Lustau Amontillado del Puerto González Obregón (~$35)

For something with a bit more restrained sweetness, check out Lustau’s Amontillado del Puerto González Obregon. Crafted entirely from the Palomino grape, this wine is vinified using a 10-cask solera system, which incorporates blending factions of certain vintages of wine to create an increasingly older average age. The resulting wine is aromatic, nutty, and finishes pleasantly sweet. Think of this as the perfect happy medium for sweet wine skeptics. 

Broadbent

Contrary to the many centuries-owned brands across the Iberian peninsula, Broadbent was founded just over 25 years ago, back in 1996. Inspired by his father, Michael Broadbent, Bartholomew Broadbent set out on a mission to create fine expressions of his self-proclaimed “desert-island wine.” Over the past two and a half decades, Broadbent has played an important role in expanding the Madeira name across the globe, particularly in the quality spectrum of the wines. These impeccable wines stand up to many fortified wines founded long before them, with great age-worthy potential. 

bottle of Broadbent Madeira Boal Colheita

Broadbent Madeira Colheita 1999 (~$60)

The history of Madeira wines dates back to the 1400s, to the Age of Exploration. At the time, ships sailing to the New World were loaded up with wine, though were at risk of spoiling due to the long voyage. The addition of neutral spirits was used to preserve the wine, though contrary to other styles of fortified wines, these ship-bound bottles experienced excessive heat and movement due to their long sea voyage, which added new layers of texture and complexity to the wines. Today, Madeira wines are crafted in homage to these historic wines. Colheitas are produced from a single harvest. 

bottle of Broadbent Madeira Malmsey Malvasia Single Cask No. 217

Broadbent Malvasia Madeira Single Cask No. 217 (~$118)

Think of this wine as a single vintage on steroids. Not only does this wine come from a single vintage, but it also comes from a single cask — meaning its production is incredibly unique.  Fruit for this wine was crushed, pressed, and fermented with native yeasts prior to aging in one old American oaks cask. The wine was bottled in 2019. Expect flavors of caramel, toffee, tobacco, and sweet spice on the palate. Only 810 bottles were produced. 

Inniskillin

Located on Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, Inniskillin was founded by grapevine nursery operator Donald Ziraldo and chemist and home winemaker Karl Kaiser, back in 1974. The duo planted their first 32-acre vineyard to Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gamay, as they believed these grapes would work best in the area’s frigid climate. The pair crafted their first ice wine in 1983, and although the style represents just 10% of the winery’s output today, it’s undoubtedly become Inniskillin’s claim to fame. The winery expanded its holdings by purchasing a second winery in Okanagan back in 1996, and ten years later, the entire company was purchased by Constellation Brands. Today, in addition to its dry bottlings, Inniskillin is highly regarded for its beautiful ice wines, which are produced from a variety of red and white grapes. 

bottle of Inniskillin Riesling Icewine

Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine 2019 (~$81)

Riesling is one of the more classic varieties used in ice wine production, as its naturally high acidity helps keep the wine fresh on the palate. The fruit for this wine was settled, inoculated, and fermented for 23 days. Ice wine grapes were harvested on November 12, 2019, which was the earliest pick to date on record. Pair with a variety of desserts, from cheesecakes to key lime pies, and beyond. 

bottle of 2019 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine

Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine 2015 (~$107)

Although Cabernet Franc is not generally the go-to pick for ice wine production, this top-tier wine from Inniskillin promises to turn heads. While ice wines produced from Riesling tend to show more tropical, citrus-forward notes, expressions crafted from Cabernet Franc tend to show flavors of strawberry, red fruit, rhubarb, and cream. This wine is an excellent choice for pairing with strawberry shortcake, Linzer tarts, and all things milk chocolate — from mousse to cake.