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Sugar on Top: the Basics of Dessert Wines

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine and Food Pairing

Most people will agree that wine and dessert go well together, holding hands as they skip into the sunset of your mouth. Just the very image of a glass of wine next to a plate of tiramisu is enough to make most people salivate, drooling like a person about to fall in love at first bite. It seems simple enough: a glass of wine, a plate of sweets, a taste bud or fifty, but wining and dining in this manner needs more than a twinkie and a bottle of sugary liquid; it requires proper pairing of food and wine for the ultimate experience. It also requires a knowledge of what the term "dessert wines" truly entails.

Dessert wines, by definition, appear pretty simple: they are wines often served with a dessert. They contain a rainbow of flavors including peach, herb, oak, and berry. When consumed with an after dinner dish - or added to a cream - their tang and potency creates a wonderful combination. Even for desserts or creams laden in lightness, the vividness of a dessert wine can make a world of difference. A general rule of thumb is that dessert wines should be sweeter than the desserts they are served with.

Standing alone sometimes, dessert wines do not always play the role of the sidekick. Dessert wines are also wines of independence - enlightening others, preaching equality and singing "I'm a wino hear me pour in bottles too big to ignore" for whomever will listen. In short, they are served without food as often as they are served with it.

Dessert wines include wines that are easily spelled, such as Sherry, ice wine, and Port, to wines that you need to practically be a linquist to pronounce, such as Tokaji Aszu, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Vin Doux naturel. These wines, by nature, are often highly sweet - offering kind words through the grape vine and willing to open the cellar door for others. This makes them hard to handle for those with a mouth not full of sweet toothes. For this reason, they are sold in small bottles, as well as larger ones.

In the United States, the legal definition of "dessert wines" is different than in other places; here, dessert wine is defined as a wine that contains 14 percent alcohol or more. Simply, the US believes that dessert wines are fortified wines. This not only leads to confusion among some consumers, but it also unfairly provides the insinuation that certain wines are worhty of carrying the dessert title when they are not. To put it in perspective, both Mad Dog and Boones are considered dessert wines in the US, which only makes sense if the apple cobbler on the plate in front of you were replaced by a slice of cow pie.

After Dinner Drinks

In other countries, this legal definition holds no water, or no wine; there are dessert wines in Germany, for instance, that contain less that eight percent of alcohol. Made in countries all over the world, different regions offer different styles of dessert wine. Some of these wines include additional alcohol and some do not. Some are sparkling and some are not. Some are high in alcohol and some are not. It purely depends on the wine.

Whether sweet or dry, dessert wines are often produced through late harvesting or a process that stops fermentation before all sugar can be converted into alcohol. This leaves the end product like a bottle of wine mixed with a packet of Equal: it's left tasting sweet. If additional alcohol is added before fermentation takes place (as occurs in fortified wine) yeast is killed and residual sugar remains; this also leaves the wine sweet.

Even with the Dessert Wine label, not all dessert wines live up to their assumed reputation. Some of them should accompany the side of a rich meal, rather than be consumed with something served afterwards.

White dessert wines, like regular white wines, are best served chilled. Similarly, red dessert wines also follow the crowd; they are served most often at room temperature. Both white and red dessert wines are reputed for being particularly good with fruit and freshed baked goods, such as sweet rolls and breads.

Overall, it is easy for people to be confused on what constitutes a dessert wine. As Uncle Sam points his finger at fortified wines, dessert wines in the US meet a different explanation than they do elsewhere. The US aside, these drinks are usually best thought of as wines that are sweet, not necessarily one you would want to take to dinner, but one you would stick around with once the dinner plates are cleared.