Ranging in style from off-dry to incredibly sweet, there is a dessert wine for any occasion. While some, such as late harvest styles, are light and made for youthful drinking, others with high sweetness and acidity like Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes and Tokaji, can age imperiously for generations. There are five main types of dessert wine – fortified, late-harvest, dried grape, ice wine and Botrytis (noble rot).
These dessert wines are preserved with the addition of a neutral spirit. When the sweetness in the fermenting grape must reaches a predetermined level of alcohol (normally around 7%abv), a clear alcohol brandy is added to stop fermentation. In the case of Port, this is typically a 77%abv spirit. The wine may then be aged in barrel or cask to allow the alcohol, tannin and fruit to mesh together. The finished product is typically 20%abv. Famous names include Taylor’s, Graham’s Fonseca, Warres for Port and Henriques & Henriques, Blandy’s, Barbeito, Cossart & Gordon and Pereira d’Oliveira for Madeira.
Like any fruit, the longer you leave grapes on the vine then the riper and sweeter they become. Grapes are left on the vines long after grapes for dry wines would be harvested to ensure the sugar content is as high as it can be.
Grapes, often late-harvest or botrytis, are laid out in the sun or in special drying rooms, to raisin. This process can result in a 70% loss of moisture content and therefore intensifies the sweetness, while reducing the yield, of the grapes before they are fermented into wine. This style of wine making is very popular in Italy where it is called Passito.
This style of dessert wine shares some similarities with the dried grape method in so much as the goal is the removal of moisture from the grapes. Grapes, infected with Botrytis, are left on the vines long after summer, indeed autumn, has finished. Once temperatures hit somewhere below -7°c and usually at night, these shrivelled and frozen grapes are picked and pressed before they thaw – the resulting wine in incredibly sweet and intense. Germany and Canada lead the way with production mainly from Riesling grapes although Vidal and Cabernet Franc are also utilised.
Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) is a fungal rot that causes ripe grapes to shrivel under perfect conditions. This shrivelling reduces the moisture content of the grapes and results in incredibly intense wines with honey flavours. Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Furmint and Riesling are the undisputed champion varieties when it comes to noble rot wines. Arguably, the world’s finest dessert wines are from Bordeaux’s Sauternes, located to at the southern tip of the Graves area. They are made using mainly Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes and wines like Château d’Yquem are some of the world’s most desirable and immortal.
Below you can view our hand-picked selection of Dessert wines available to buy in store or online at Hennings Wine Merchants.