Much like Fight Club, there's only one rule you need to know about dessert wine. Dessert wine needs to be equal to or sweeter than the dessert it's served with. Otherwise, that sweet dessert wine you carefully chose will taste like a bitter dessert wine fail. Aside from that one rule, dessert wine can be any wine that whether it's served with an actual dessert or not. It's generally sweet and sometimes has a higher alcohol content like Marsala and other fortified wines. These are pretty far from the dry wines you might use in cooking, and are meant to be served with sweets, making them overly sweet for things like blue cheese. Skip the demi-sec for this one. You'll want something truly dolce, or sweet.
Winemakers have a few different ways to produce a sweeter dessert wine. The fermentation process can be stopped earlier than usual to keep more residual sugar, or late harvest grapes can be used to up the sugar content when making late harvest wines. If permitted by the region's wine laws, sugar may be added at some point in the winemaking process, but that's a very controversial topic in the wine world.
So whether you like a sweet and fruity dessert wine or a wine glass filled with caramel and nutty flavors, there's a dessert wine for you to try. Put on your most comfortable stretch pants and start tasting.
1. Ruby or Tawny Porto
This fortified wine from Portugal makes the perfect dessert for a red wine lover. Complex flavors in every sip make a rich sweet red wine. Cabernet drinkers can really appreciate port wine for its complexity. Chardonnay drinkers may really get into tawny port with those sweet caramel and nutty flavors. Try ruby port with dense chocolate desserts. Tawny port is magical with nutty desserts, vanilla, and salted caramel creations.
Try: Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port or Graham's 10 Year Old Tawny Port
2. Muscat de Alexandria
Muscat of Alexandria is an ancient grape that probably originated in Egypt, but there's nothing delicate about it. In your face (in a good way) sweetness and floral honey make this wine. Spain's classic dessert wine Moscatel de Setubal is made from the Muscat de Alexandria grape which is a perfect dessert wine with simple desserts like creme puffs and butter cookies.
Try: Fonseca Moscatel de Setubal
Malmsey Madeira is the sweetest type of this fortified wine. Its brown sugar and burnt caramel flavors are so good with tiramisu or butterscotch pudding.
Try: Blandy's 10 Year Madeira Rich Malmsey
4. Vin Santo
A traditional Italian dessert wine, Vin Santo is made from pressed dried grapes. Made with the passito method, these grapes are dried either on straw mats or by hanging the bunches from barn rafters. This leaves dehydrated grapes with concentrated sweet raisin flavors. Like drinking a raisin, you can put a few tablespoons on some pound cake or angel food cake.
Try: Il Poggione Vin Santo
Sauternes is a classic old school sweet wine that shouldn't be overlooked. It's made from the classic bordeaux white grapes of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc and has concentrated flavors of dried apple, apricot, and pineapple. Honey and creamy almond make Sauternes taste so fancy with cheese and nut plates. France really knows how to live. Sauternes is perfect with fresh and dried fruit or crème brulee, cheesecake, and custard.
Try: Chateau Laribotte Sauternes
This Spanish fortified wine is produced in a range of dry to sweet. You want to look for the words Pedro Ximénez on a label. It's the name of the grape, not the winemaker. Try it with ice cream to fancy up make-your-own sundae-night. Pedro Ximenez coats the tongue with thick flavors of raisins, toffee, and chocolate.
Try: Alvear Pedro Ximenez de Anada
7. Sparkling Riesling
A sparkling wine is a lighter option for a dessert wine. The famous rieslings of Germany have a wide range of styles. The natural acidity balances out the sweet taste of a late harvest riesling. Sparkling riesling is a thing and it is glorious. Try it with cheesecake or custard fruit cups.
Try: Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling
8. Sparkling Gewürztraminer
Another late harvest wine that gets its extra sweetness from noble rot (aka Botrytis cinerea) is Gewürztraminer. Fun to say and even more enjoyable to drink. It's described as smelling like an exotic floral perfume with a little spice on top of the prettiness. This dessert wine has so much going on, you should keep the desserts simple and light and enjoy the palate cleansing bubbles.
Try: Treveri Sparkling Gewurztraminer
9. Moscato D'Asti
Moscato D'Asti is America's most loved sweet white grape wine. It's naturally fizzy and like drinking white grapes. Poach pears or grill peaches and pineapple using this sweet white wine from Italy's Piedmont region. Rip open a bag of biscotti and try Moscato's dark pink sister wine Brachetto d'Acqui.
Try; Alasia Moscato D'Asti or Alasia Brachetto D'Acqui
10. Ice Wine
Eiswein (or Ice Wine), is made from grapes that were left to freeze on the vine. The ultimate late harvest wine is made mainly in Canada and Germany. Ice wine is made mainly from the Riesling and Vidal Blanc grape varieties, but there's also red ice wine made from thick skinned Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel grapes.
Try: Inniskillin Icewine