A Guide to Dessert Wines: Types, Tastes, and What to Expect

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guide to dessert wines

When It’s Time for Dessert, You Need Special Wines

Debating whether or not to splurge for dessert after a delicious meal is a timeless dilemma. A sweet note is the perfect ending to a satiating meal, yet heavy dessert options are often difficult to justify on a full stomach. Enter the dessert wine, to the rescue!

Dessert wines offer the perfect balance of something sweet enough to satisfy your craving, but also light enough to keep you from feeling like you went overboard. Before you come in contact with a menu that offers an array of dessert wines post-meal, take the time to learn about the types, tastes, and what to expect from dessert wine in our handy guide below.

Understanding the Basics of Dessert Wine

True to its name, dessert wines are notoriously sweet because they are produced with extra sweet wine grapes. Dessert wines are also created with a truncated fermentation process.

guide to dessert wines ice wine

While other wines typically rest long enough for them to transform the grapes’ natural sugars into alcohol, dessert wines cut this process short to stop the fermentation. Often, this process requires the addition of brandy or super cooling, two techniques that thwart the yeast from maturing.

From this process, there are several varieties that can be produced that are considered dessert wines. However, the most common types of dessert wine are fortified wines and richly sweet dessert wines.

Drinking Fortified Wines for Dessert

Fortified dessert wines are formed when grape brandy is added to a wine. Fortified dessert wines are known for carrying both a high alcohol content, and a long shelf life once opened. Two of the most common fortified dessert wines are port and sherry.

guide to dessert wines sherryPort

Port wine originates in Portugal’s northern region along the Douro river. In this fertile region, traditional Portuguese grapes are collected and fermented in open tanks where they are stomped (cue quintessential wine-smashing images) daily. To alter the wine’s composition so that it becomes a dessert wine, the liquid is blended with a neutral grape spirit that halts the fermentation process.

Depending on the type of casks used and the aging process, port wines vary in sweetness and tenure. To get a sense of port dessert wine, try this: Tawny Port, a very sweet dessert wine stored in wooden casks and barrels for up to 40 years. Well-aged tawny port offers a supple, nutty flavor that goes perfectly with fine dining.


Sherry dessert wines stem from Andalusia, Spain. Three key grapes go into sherry wine: Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez. Sherry wine makers concoct oxidized blends of these three grapes to produce nutty dessert wines. If you’re looking to end your meal with a dry dessert wine, opt for Fino – “The lightest and most dry of all the Sherries with tart and nutty flavors.”

Richly Sweet Dessert Wines

Unlike unfortified wines, richly sweet dessert wines are known for having lower alcohol content. However, richly sweet dessert wines are made with the highest quality grapes, and many of these wine varietals can age for over 50 years. With sweetness and acidity in full force, the finest richly sweet dessert wines include both ice wines and noble rot wines.

Ice Wines

Verifiable ice wines are both rare and expensive, for two reasons: 1) ice wines are only produced in harsh weather conditions when a vineyard freezes, and 2) ice wines must be harvested in cold weather temperatures while they are still frozen. Canada, Switzerland, and Germany are well known ice wine producing regions. Germany, in particular, offers a choice selection of honeyed and sweet ice wines that are blended with German Riesling grapes.

Noble Rot Wine

Noble rot dessert wines are sophisticated and rare. While the name may dissuade you from ordering this wine as a dessert, the rot fruits and vegetables create a wine that sustains honey and ginger flavors. After a delicious meat-based meal, try a glass of noble rot to end your experience on the perfect note.

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