Dessert wine can be one of the most hedonistic, amazing, and gloriously lip smacking wines you will ever taste in your life. It can also taste like drinking candy, leaving your mouth in a sticky mess, with you wanting nothing more than a sip of water to wash the sensation away and to move on to something more palatable. The difference between the two is what makes a great dessert wine great, and what makes the bad dessert wine fit only for catching flies.
The first, and most important note when it comes to dessert wine, is that it is not meant to be drunk in the same quantity as the red you had with your steak. Dessert wine is generally served in 2-3 ounce pours, about half of what you would get if you asked for a glass of red wine in a restaurant. No matter how good the dessert wine, the amount of residual sugar left in it can make for a very tired palate after any more than that. So when serving it to guests, try to find smaller tasting glasses to pour dessert wine into, rather than using a standard white or red wine glass.
A second very important note on dessert wine is when it comes to pairing it with food. Most dessert wines can be paired with, not surprisingly, dessert! However, the golden rule when pairing is this: never pair a dessert wine with a dessert that is sweeter than the wine. If you pair a sweet wine with a sweeter dessert, the wine will almost always fall flat, feel flabby, too acidic, not fruity enough, etc. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking it is a good rule to live by.
Now, onto the 3 characteristics that make a great dessert wine:
1. Acidity: Acidity is the number one most important characteristic of a great dessert wine. The best dessert wines have excellent (meaning high) acidity, which helps to counter and cut through that sweetness and make them palatable without being too overly sugary. Almost every great dessert wine is made from grapes that are screechingly acidic, to the point that non-dessert wines made from the same grapes can be downright undrinkable. Tokai, Eiswein/Ice Wine, Beerenauslese/Trockenbeerenauslese, and Sauternes are all famous dessert wines that also have famously high acidity. Highly acidic grapes also allow for a long hang time to build up sugars without losing too much acidity, which leads to my next characteristic…
2. Sweetness: For a great dessert wine, it needs to be sweet! Most of the grapes that are destined for dessert wine aren’t necessarily the sweetest in the world, and if given the opportunity the juice from these grapes would ferment into dry wine instead. However, the winemaker has a few different techniques to increase the sugar content of these grapes and the juice they make. Botrytized grapes have been attacked by a fungus, Botrytis Cinerea, nicknamed “Noble Rot”, that dehydrate the grapes and thereby increase the sugar content and intensity. Sauternes, Tokai, and some Trockenbeerenauslese wines are made in this way. Eiswein, or Ice Wine, is so called because the grapes are left on long after other grapes have been harvested, until the weather is cold enough to freeze the grapes themselves! This pulls water from the grape, again increasing its sugar content and flavor intensity. Another tactic winemakers employ to craft dessert wine is stopping fermentation part way through, thereby leading to lower alcohol contents and higher residual sugar levels. For some wines at high enough sugar levels, the yeast simply cannot ferment all the sugar in the wine, and therefore fermentation stops at just a few percent. For other wines, the winemaker chills the wine to a low enough point that the yeast all die, and then filters them out (to prevent them from starting fermentation again in the bottle), leading to a low alcohol sweet wine. And for Port and Madeira and other fortified sweet wines, the winemaker adds a neutral grape spirit part way through fermentation which kills the yeast in the wine (yeast cannot survive above 16% alcohol or so). All these techniques have one important affect: to make the wine sweet!
3. Ageability: Some may argue this point, but the 3rd characteristic of a great dessert wine is its ageability. Due to the high amount of both residual sugar and acidity in dessert wines, bacteria is a non-issue for the most part, as they cannot survive the extreme conditions found in the bottle. This leads to a wine with enormous aging potential, and dessert wines have been found in good drinking condition dating back well over 100 years. It is not uncommon to see Ports, Madeira’s, and Trockenbeerenauslese’s that were made 40, 50, or 60 years ago. This leads to incredible sensations of caramel, herbs, spices, nuts, Crème Brule, dried or candied fruit, and honey. While there is nothing wrong with a young dessert wine (and indeed some, such as Moscato d’Asti, are meant to be drunk young) an old dessert wine can offer sensational aromas and flavors that can be seldom found in other wines.
I can remember exactly where I was the first time I had Heidi Schrock’s Ausbruch “On The Wings Of Dawn”, a botrytized wine made on the shores of the Neusiedlersee from local grapes Welschriesling and Furmint. It quite literally felt for a second like I had been lifted onto the wings of an angel. That was my “holy shit” moment when it came to dessert wine, and I was hooked from that point on. Never before had I had a wine so intensely flavored, so electric in my mouth, making me want to go back again and again to taste it. By the end of the tasting, I’m sure I had tried it 5 times. That is the power of a great dessert wine: you will want to go back to it, over and over, for years and years, to just have a sip, just a taste, to feel that electricity in your mouth, that complex flavor running over your tongue, that silky mouthfeel. The experience can offer the same hedonistic, mind numbingly beautiful qualities that the best red and white wines in the world can offer, and you’ll get hooked on dessert wine too.