.The first time I tried a dessert wine, it was a well-aged "Port" at a cellar door in Napa. I have no idea which vineyard it was, as I was not well-versed in wine at the time; I was 25, on a road trip, and all I knew was that I had to stop and try some wine while I was in that area. I randomly picked a winery, whose name I think I slightly recognized, and went through their tasting. I'm sure everything I tried was pretty good, but I only remember the Port because I was so surprised that I liked it. I had anticipated that it would be too syrupy-sweet, but it was full-bodied, with deep fruitiness that perfectly paired with the piece of dark chocolate that the attendant offered.
This experience occurred during a time when I was more interested in craft beer, so although I enjoyed it, I didn't investigate the world of dessert wine until years later. In fact it was just last year, while working at The Thirsty Owl, that I had another Port-style wine that knocked my socks off. Not only was the flavor profile gorgeous, I really enjoyed the custom of sipping the wine from the beautiful little glass in which it was served. I was watching a lot of Downton Abbey at the time, and I really began to appreciate those scenes after dinner in which the characters took a digestif. This is still the way many people around the world finish a meal, but it is not as popular in this country. As I prepared to open Sage, I made a point to try more dessert wines, and somewhere along the way, I decided that my pet project would be to introduce as many customers as possible to them.
Dessert wines fall into several different categories: fortified wines (Port, Sherry), wines made with raisinated grapes (Vin Santo), ice wine (often found in New York wineries), noble rot (Tokaji, Sauternes), and late harvest wines. The idea behind all of them is the same: to produce a wine that retains the sugar content of the grape, whether from stopping the fermentation process prematurely, drying the fruit, or letting the grapes stay on the vine for a longer time. The results are very different, though, depending on technique and types of grapes used, and although I don't dare make universal claims, I suggest that there is a style for almost every palate. I must note, too, that not all dessert wines are sweet (Fino Sherry, for instance), though most have some degree of residual sugar.
Well-crafted dessert wines should not be syrupy or cloying, but should showcase the sweetest possibilities of the grapes from which they are made. Depth of flavor and fruitiness, not sugar, should shine through and delight your palate with a delicate touch, not a harsh blow. Even fortified wines, with their higher alcohol content, should not seem “hot” or overpowering. The ideal is a seamless, full-bodied sweetness that also reveals complexity. While dessert wines can be enjoyed with sweets, they needn't be; they go nicely with fruit and cheese plates at the end of the meal or they can even be sipped as an aperitif. For those of us who avoid dessert foods, dessert wines are a delicious way to end a meal with a satisfying sweetness that isn't so filling.
As the weather cools and the snow starts to fall, I am as likely to sip a Port or Tokaji as I am to swirl a nice whiskey in front of the fire. I invite you to join me in exploring the variety and versatility of dessert wines.
Here are links to some more information: