Dessert wines are often passed over because they are served at the end of a meal after other wines have been consumed and our full gullets have little room for anything else.
However, they have a place throughout the meal and can even make fine aperitifs.
Cheese goes very well with sweet wines and different savory dishes including foie gras, pate and spicy curries. While there is tremendous range when it comes to dessert wines, the one thing that all must have is enough acidity to balance the sugar; otherwise they will seem cloying and clunky on the palate.
Port is no doubt one of the most popular dessert wines. Fortification, meaning that grape spirits are added during fermentation to kill yeast (which eats sugar), and adding alcohol is also used to make other wines, including sherry, Madeira, marsala and Muscat de Rivesaltes and Banyuls in the Roussillon. The latter, which is made from grenache or grenache blanc, is arguably the best wine to have with chocolate. It can be as age-worthy as port for a far more reasonable price.
Outside of port, sauternes is the best-known dessert wine. This sweet nectar from Bordeaux is affected by botrytis (a fungus that sucks the water out of a grape, thus creating greater intensity), giving it a honeyed, spicy, stone fruit character. For less expensive versions, try the wines from its neighbor, Saint Croix du Mont.
Late-harvest German rieslings are also treasured by collectors. The pricing varies depending on the time they are picked.
Eisweins, the latest picked near Christmas time, are quite a bit pricier than beerenauslese that are harvested in November.
German dessert wines that are made from other grapes like scheurebe, rieslaner and gewurztraminer tend to be less expensive than riesling as well.
Vin Santo was originally used for sacramental purposes, but now it finds a place alongside biscotti. Made in central Italy, usually from trebbiano and malvasia, it is oxidized in barrel and has a nut-like quality. Besides the standard Italian cookies, it is great with honey-roasted nuts and toffee.
In the Veneto, reciotos made from both red and white grapes reign.
Recioto di Soave, composed of garganega, is a DOCG and can be a lovely accompaniment to fruit tarts as well as soft goat and blue cheeses. Recioto della Amarone or Recioto della Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinella and molinara, the same red grapes as the dry wines. It makes for an amazing pairing with gorgonzola, walnuts and figs. Did I say amazing? That might be an understatement.
Not to be outdone, Australia is famous for its stickies, historically those that were fortified, especially those made from muscat and muscadelle (which is sometimes called tokay). Both Australia and South Africa have a tradition of making port, sometime employing the traditional Portuguese grapes, sometimes not.
If you want great dessert wines from North America, the Finger Lakes of New York and Canada’s Niagara Peninsula have the climate to knock them out of the park and often do with ice wines made from riesling, vidal blanc and seyval blanc — the last two being North American hybrid grapes.
Bringing this sweet tour home to the west coast, individual wineries make good dessert wines, but the only type that is unique to our state is late-harvest zinfandel.
This roundup of dessert wines has some obvious omissions, but those mentioned here should be fairly easy to find and are a great way to whet your sweet tooth.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.