Elegant, complex and fun to drink, dessert wines are the perfect way to end a meal.


By Lauren Otis

Published in Packet Magazine, April 2009

So, you’re a big fan of dessert, and you like wine, but when the two words are put together the result is a mystery to you.

What exactly is “dessert wine”? Well, it’s both exactly what it says—a wine to be consumed with the dessert course of a meal—and much more. Dessert wines are as varied, and from as many diverse origins, as the wines served with any other meal course. Maybe more so.

“To make a red wine there are not that many techniques. To make a dessert wine there are a zillion,” says Laurent Chapuis, proprietor of the Princeton Corkscrew Wine Ship in Princeton.

Although dessert wines may be lesser known, they reward those who learn about them and seek them out. “Yes, there is definitely a learning curve,” says Cameron Stark, the winemaker at Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, who makes a dessert wine called Cool Foxy Lady and several port wines that are often drunk at the end of a meal with dessert.

“Many people haven’t explored dessert wine,” Mr. Stark says. “They can be very elegant, incredibly complex, and fun to drink.”

As a general rule, dessert wines do tend to be sweet, as opposed to their dryer counterparts that are served with savory meal courses. Their sweetness is balanced by acidity, however, which complements a dessert, tempering its sweetness rather than compounding it, says Jeff Carlson, general manager of One 53 restaurant in Rocky Hill.

“When you take a sweet wine and put it with sweet food, together it is not as sweet, together it takes those sweetness edges out and allows the acidity of the wine and the richness of the dessert to come forward. The sum of the two is better than each of them individually,” says Mr. Carlson, who was the sommelier at Rat’s in Hamilton for six years before going to One 53 a year ago.

That balance of acidity and sweetness is key to a good dessert wine. “Acidity is very important, you don’t want just a lollypop,” says Mr. Chapuis.

Although they complement a sweet final course, a good dessert wine can stand on its own too. “Dessert wine can be drunk just like that, all by themselves, they can be the dessert,” says Mr. Chapuis.

Dessert wines are often referred to as “late-harvest” wines because the grapes from which they are made are harvested late in the season, when their sugar content reaches its peak. Fermentation is stopped while they still retain some sugar, giving them their signature complex sweetness, according to Mr. Chapuis.

One technique calls for drying out the late-harvest grapes before pressing them, and is used to make Vin Santo, a famed dessert wine from Tuscany. Sweet wines from the island of Samos in Greece, which he stocks in his Princeton store along with other dessert wines, are made using this technique and have been “very well known since antiquity,” Mr. Chapuis says.

“Ice wine” is a sweet dessert wine made by another ancient technique originating in northern Europe, which has spread to other parts of the world including Canada, Mr. Chapuis says. The grapes are left on the vine until after a hard frost and then crushed, with ice crystals left behind and a concentrated sweet wine resulting.

Unionville Vineyard’s Cool Foxy Lady is made in the style of an ice wine, but because the New Jersey winters are mild the Vidal Blanc grapes from which it is made are harvested, crushed and then frozen at the winery, says Mr. Stark. “It’s a cryogenic wine,” he jokes.

Perhaps the best-known dessert wine is Sauternes, from the area in Bordeaux, France, of the same name, where famed dessert wine chateaux such as Chateau d’Yquem have produced elegant and expensive wines for centuries.

Sauternes benefits from one of those benevolent accidents of nature, with the grapes left on the vines developing a fungus called Botrytis, or “noble rot,” which has the effect of shriveling the grapes and concentrating their sugars and flavors.

There is a legend of how long, long ago, the proprietor of Chateau d’Yquem was visiting Hungary and was so enamored of its famed sweet Tokaji wines he forgot to send word back to his estate to commence the harvest, Mr. Chapuis says. When he returned all of his grapes were infected with Botrytis, but he chose to harvest them and make wine anyway, resulting in the birth of the legendary Sauternes dessert wine.

Sweet dessert wines have been a delicacy enjoyed by the privileged since wine has been made in all likelihood. “Before there was Sauternes the Emperor Charlemagne drank Tokaji,” says Mr. Carlson.

In the modern world, however, Mr. Carlson says he is a firm adherent to the belief that a “dessert wine” is whatever you want it to be—“people should drink what they like and don’t worry about the rules.” Certain sweeter table wines, like German Auslese Rieslings, “make wonderful dessert wines,” he says.

A dessert wine doesn’t even need to be sweet, Mr. Carlson says. “There are great Cabernets and Merlots that have chocolate overtones, so even though you’re not thinking of a Cabernet as a dessert wine, they can be wonderful dessert wines,” he says.

And don’t forget the sparkling wine of Champagne. “The French like to say every meal should have Champagne, either at the beginning or the end,” Mr. Carlson says. Some “demi-sec” Champagne is slightly sweeter and is excellent with dessert, he adds.

Mr. Carlson says when he was at Rat’s he sometimes even served a beer with dessert, a framboise Lambic Belgian beer such as Lindemans. “People would look at me like I was crazy. ‘I know you think I’m crazy,’ I would say, ‘but wait till you taste it.’”