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A Guide to the Best Dessert Wines for the Holidays

The holidays are a time when we tend to reach for sweet wines. Sweet or “dessert” wines are always popular during the festive season, as that’s when we tend to eat more candy, sweet cakes and pies, and desserts.

After all, there’s no better way to end the year than on a sweet note!

You might be surprised to learn that over the centuries, sweet wines have actually been paired primarily with savory dishes. And there’s a good reason for that.

Below we’ll look at popular types of sweet wines for the holidays and the best food pairings to go with them.

What are Sweet Wines?

To understand what goes into making a sweet or dessert wine, we first have to understand the process of fermentation: in other words, how all wines are made.

Grapes are a type of fruit. And as such, sugar from the fruit — natural sugar, not refined sugar — is one of their primary components of wine.

Fermentation is the process of yeast (living microorganisms) “eating” the sugar and converting it to alcohol. If the winemaker allows all the sugar to be transformed into alcohol by the yeast, they obtain a “dry” wine.

But if they decide to arrest the fermentation process before the yeast has completely consumed the sugar in the grape must — or grape juice — they can obtain various levels of sweetness in the wine.

In the period before the Second World War, nearly all wine was produced as sweet wine. Even though there were a handful of notable exceptions, it wasn’t until the post-war era in the second half of the 20th century that a new taste for dry wines began to emerge among wine lovers.

In fact, before the Second World War, it wasn’t uncommon for winemakers to add sugar to their wines. Today, that’s not desired in most wine appellations. But at the time, it helped them to achieve higher alcohol levels, while keeping the wine sweet.

Types of Sweet Wines

There are countless types of sweet wine made around the world. Here are some basic categories to help you understand where and how sweet wines are made around the globe.

Dried-Grape Wines

Sometimes called straw or raisin wine, dried-grape wine is the most common type of sweet wine. The winemaker picks the grapes and allows them to dry, usually on straw mats in a well-ventilated drying room. Sometimes the grapes are hung up on racks to dry as well.

The drying process concentrates the sugar in the grape berries by reducing the amount of water in the fruit. Dried-grape wine, known as passito in Italian (meaning literally “wilted”), can have a wonderfully rich texture to it.

Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily and Vin Santo from Tuscany are great examples of dried-grape wines.

Botrytized or “Noble Rot” Wines

For botrytized wines, the winemaker intentionally allows rot to form on the grape berries in the vineyard, hence the term “noble rot.”

As for dried-grape wines above, this process desiccates the berries, which concentrates the sugar in the fruit.

It’s also believed that botrytis (a type of fungus) imparts more complexity to the wines. Some of the most famous examples of noble rot wines are Sauternes from Bordeaux in France and Tokaji from Hungary.

Late Harvest Wines

Technically, nearly all botrytized wines are late harvest wines. But not all late harvest wines are botrytized wines.

Late harvest wines are made from grapes that have been allowed to become overripe in the vineyards. The ripeness is determined in part by the sugar content of the grape berries.

In warm weather appellations where the sunshine keeps the skins of the grapes dry, the grapes become extremely sweet, which makes them ideal for the production of dessert wine.

A lot of German Riesling is made in this style. But warm weather wine growing regions like California are also famous for late harvest dessert wines.

Ice Wines or Eiswein

Ice wines, as the name would suggest, are made in cold weather wine growing regions, like Germany (where it is called Eiswein) and Canada. The extreme temperatures of winter desiccate the grapes, thus increasing their sugar levels.

But because of the cold, botrytis can’t form on the skins of the grape berries. The interesting thing about these wines is that they are (or at least in theory, should be) botrytis free. As a result, they have a marked freshness to them despite their sweetness and texture.

Sparkling Wine

Many people don’t realize that nearly all sparkling wine is made by adding sugar to a still wine to provoke a second fermentation. In many cases, a sweetener made from refined sugar is added to the wine before bottling to balance its sweetness and tartness.

Champagne is the most famous example of this. The humble but delicious Prosecco is another example.

See this index of “sweetness in sparkling wine” on Wikipedia to get a better understanding of how much “residual sugar” is commonly found in sparkling wine.

Even though drier-style sparkling wines are becoming more and more popular these days, the most common category you’ll find on the shelves of your favorite wine shop is “brut,” meaning that the wine can have up to 12 grams of residual sugar in it (compare with the usual 2-3 grams of residual sugar in a dry red wine, to give you an idea of the sweetness on the palate).

What Should I Pair My Dessert Wine with?

From a technical perspective, sweetness in a dish is actually an enemy of sweet wine (and all wine, for that matter). When you pair a still red wine with chocolate, for example, you overwhelm the wine with the chocolate’s sweetness.

Similarly, if you pair a sweet dish with a sweet wine, you’ll put the wine’s balance out of whack. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pair your favorite sweet dish or dessert with your favorite dessert wine.

Remember: If you enjoy it, then it’s a good pairing. And that’s all that really matters.

But if you really want to enjoy your sweet wine to the fullest, try pairing with simply flavored savory dishes.

Did you know that the canonical pairing for the famous Sauternes from Bordeaux is foie gras? Or have you ever been served an Italian passito with light fresh cheeses and nuts?

Germans like to pair their sweet Rieslings with savory dinner foods. And in recent years, wine connoisseurs across the globe have begun pairing sweet Rieslings with spicy Asian foods and other world cuisines.

Next time you go for Tex-Mex, try it with a Riesling from Germany! Looking for a last-minute gift for the wine-lover on your list? Look no further than our roundup of 10 unique Christmas gifts for wine lovers >