Dessert Wines - Are They Only for Desserts?

By Juan Carlos Flores Executive Sommelier, Pueblo Bonito Hotels Resorts & Spas | October 28, 2008

The influx of new and interesting wines to accompany gastronomical innovations has produced a hunger for learning and experimenting with pairings of wine and food. Dessert wines provide an open window to delightfully sweet and powerful experiences. They are also so varied that you can present them in any number of ways.

Dessert wines are produced in limited quantities throughout the world and tend to be more expensive than the average bottle of everyday drinking wine. Yet, a single glass of these wines, at any moment of the day, is capable of giving great satisfaction. Some months ago I had the opportunity to taste an Ice wine made with Vidal grapes in a Canadian restaurant. It was served by itself at the end of the meal and cost $27 Canadian. It was absolutely worth it. This was one of the most famous elegant, fresh and clean wines from Canada's magnificent Niagara on the Lake area. The following day I bought a bottle of the same wine and another made with Riesling to share as a beautiful experience with friends and family back home. Even though they did not know a great deal about wine, the flavors were marvelously pleasing to every palate.

Have you ever taken a bottle of wonderful red wine such as one from Piedmont to a dinner party with new friends and were disappointed to find that most of them didn't like it because it was tart and tannic? (Though for my taste, these are some of the best wines in the world.) As an alternative, I suggest that you try taking a dessert wine of the same or even lesser price and you will have a much better chance of pleasing everyone.

Learning a little about these wines will help you enjoy them more and appreciate why their quality can be costly. Normally when we use the term Dessert Wines we refer to those wines which are typically served with desserts or enjoyed on their own at the end of the meal as a substitute for dessert. These wines range from sweet to very sweet, depending on the grape variety that is used, the natural conditions where the grapes were grown and the winemaking techniques of the producer.

Many dessert wines have a low alcohol level of seven to eight percent because they are so sweet and so acid that the yeast cannot survive to transform the must (the juice of the grapes during fermentation) into a dry wine with a higher alcohol level. It can sometimes take months before fermentation is completed, while a regular wine is fermented in days or a couple of weeks.

In other instances, dessert wine legally refers to wines that have an alcohol content of fourteen percent or more. These wines are subjected to higher taxes, as in the case of fortified wines such as sherry and port. This means that their alcohol level is not achieved naturally; they were fortified with neutral alcohol or a spirit distilled from wine, depending on the product. Some dry zinfandels in the United States can easily reach and surpass this percentage of alcohol and are more heavily taxed.

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