Don’t Forget Dessert

Oct 21, 2016

While there may be no single standard for judging or universal method for producing them, one thing is for sure – the world is fat with dessert wines.

There are as many types of dessert wines as there are regions with sweet wine traditions.

When you stop to consider it, that’s a lot. Essentially, what we have is a global smorgasbord of local recipes; some very well known while others remain fairly obscure.

Almost any grape can be made into a dessert wine but some (Muscat grapes for example) have natural flavors that lend themselves more readily to the concept. When pairing with food one guideline stands tall – the wine must be sweeter than the accompaniment. After that the road to exploration is wide open.

Port, a fortified wine made from indigenous grapes that grow in the rugged Douro Valley may be the world’s most popular type of dessert wine. Graham’s, one of the oldest Port houses has maintained their leading position by continuously reinvesting in both superior sites along the Douro (the latest acquisition of rival house Cockburn further enhances their holdings) and innovative technologies (they developed the first robotic lager for crushing harvested grapes).

Graham’s Six Grapes and Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port are perfect examples. Neither are too sweet while both will warm your insides and add a glisten to holiday get-togethers.

Madeira wines also can be sweet, Malmsey in particular. Frankly sweet when young, Malmsey is capable of prolonged aging and fascinating evolution during which its natural honeyed flavors gradually give way to a pantheon of dried nuts and flowers. Blandy’s makes the best Malmsey Madeira. Check out Blandy’s Vintage Colheita Malmsey for final proof!


Bodegas Toro Albalá were the first Sherry Bodega to commercially produce a dessert wine made from PX exclusively and today no one does it better.

Some of the best dessert wines come from the Sherry Triangle, notably the towns of Montilla-Moriles where the grape Pedro Ximinex (“PX”) prospers in intensely arid, oven hot conditions. Bodegas Toro Albalá specializes in these wines. They were the first Sherry Bodega to commercially produce a dessert wine made from PX exclusively and today no one does it better.

At Toro Albalá, thick clusters are hand picked over the course of numerous passes through the vineyard before being dried on coconut fiber mats until they begin to raisin. Slow fermentation, fortification and prolonged aging follow. The result is a dessert wine with so much concentration you may prefer to use a spoon rather than a glass.

Sauternes from southern Bordeaux is another popular dessert style wine, in this case the result of a favorable fungus called botrytis. Sauternes’ local climate conditions (misty morning fog and humidity followed by drying afternoon sun and warmth) conspire to create a late harvest of extremely ripe grapes.

Although yields are consequently low, harvested grapes in Sauternes will yield a finished wine with about 10% residual sugar and an array of almost hypnotizing aromas and flavors. A good example comes from Doisy-Vedrines, an excellent estate in Barsac, one of the five Sauternes villages.



In Italy a process called “passito” leads to an exotic spectrum of concentrated aromatic essences and layered flavors.

In Italy, especially in Tuscany (the birthplace of Vin Santo) a process called “passito,” (slow partial drying of late harvested grapes) is the key component. After six or so months of passito, shriveled grapes are left to slowly ferment for three to five years. During this time evaporated wine is not replaced and oxidation occurs.

This leads to an exotic spectrum of concentrated aromatic essences and layered flavors. Different producers favor different grapes in varying proportions and employ a variety of aging regimens.

The result is no two Vin Santos taste alike – but that’s half the fun. Taste a few and see what I mean. Recommendations include Felsina, Avignonesi and Vignavecchia.


The final stop in this dessert parade is the most prolific – there are over 200 types of Muscat varietals stirring about the wine world these days.

Many have mutated over time and wandered from place to place, picking up new names as they migrate. Muscat Canelli a.k.a. Muscat Frontignan a.k.a. Muscat a Petits Grains – essentially, are all the same. What sets apart the best versions of the varietal (Canelli, etc.) from inferior versions (Alexander for example, most commonly used in fortified efforts) is site. Muscat grows in many places but excels in very few.

One place it does excel is southern Piedmont, especially in the cool hills overlooking Monfalletto in Cuneo Province where an enviable balance is achieved between temperature and humidity. This is where one finds Paolo Saracco’s vineyards.

Paolo Saracco makes a superb aromatic Muscat based 100% on Moscato Bianco Canelli. After very gentle pressing of the outer parts of the grapes only, the juice is held in tank just above freezing until the winery receives an order, after which fermentation is allowed to occur until an alcohol level of between 5% and 6% is achieved.

At that point the fermentation is arrested (by temperature) and the wine is cold stabilized and soon bottled – intentionally with a small amount of undissolved CO2 leaving the impression of a slight spritz on the palate.

Only one word is required to express how the wine tastes – delicious.


Wherever your exploring taste buds lead you in the land of dessert wine expressions you’re bound to find a soft and friendly landing. Somehow this rings true especially during the holidays so enjoy the journey and the three cheers for the discoveries you’re bound to find along the way.  Happy holiday sipping!

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