Dessert Wine: A Primer

Posted on Oct 20, 2021

wine glass

Dessert Wine can provide the perfect finish.

After a wonderful meal shared with great people enjoying lively conversation and eating delicious food, and maybe even with some well-chosen wines, our thoughts and desires often turn toward something sweet. It really is a tasty way to finish off the meal. And wine can play a great role in that finish. This article will explore various dessert wines that can provide the perfect ending to an evening well spent.

We define dessert wines as those sweet, wine-based beverages that either compliment, or can be, the final course of a meal. Dessert wines come in a myriad of different styles, are made (and enjoyed) all over the world and can range from very budget-friendly to well over $1,000 a bottle.

Bordeaux France

The vineyards at Chateau Suduiraut in Sauternes.

They can be made from red or white grapes; they can be naturally sweet or artificially sweetened, and sometimes they are fortified by adding spirits to the wine.

There are literally hundreds of different dessert wines and because of that it is difficult to create neatly defined categories that capture all of the types. But the main types of dessert wines can be broken down into the following 5 categories:

  1. Ice Wine: made in Canada and elsewhere in regions that have very cold winters.
  2. Noble Rot Wines: those that rely on the botrytis fungus to desiccate the grapes leaving an unusually high sugar to juice ratio, as is done in Sauternes.
  3. Late Harvest Wines: where grapes are picked very late in the season once they have become overripe and their sugars have maximally developed, such as with the sweeter Rieslings.
  4. Fortified Wines: the most famous include Port wines from Portugal or the sweet Sherries from Spain where high alcohol clear spirits are added to the sweet wine.
  5. Straw Mat wines: where grapes are laid out on straw mats to raisinate before being pressed such as with Italian Vin Santo or Vin de Paille found in the Jura region of France.
Dow Port 1985

A special bottle shared with special friends.

These dessert wines are invariably sweeter than dry table wines, but how much sweeter is subject to considerable variation. Almost all will be noticeably more concentrated, and some will have a thick, viscous texture to them. This concentration means they are best enjoyed in small sips. Consequently, dessert wines are generally served in the smallest glass in the house. A typical dessert wine pour will only be an ounce or two and so a glass size of 3 to 6 ounces makes for an appropriately sized vessel.

Pairing dessert wines with different desserts is really up to you. It can be a good idea to make sure your dessert wine is sweeter than your dessert, however, otherwise your dessert wine may come across as being a bit bitter. But generally we don’t think any hard and fast rules apply here. In fact, we are going to be a bit bold here. In North America, desserts often fall into one of three categories: cake, pie or ice cream.

Honestly, we have never found anything that we want to have alongside cake or pie. Perhaps it’s just us, but if we are to have cake or pie for dessert, we will enjoy it on its own and be delighted to be served something sweet after but enjoy a sweet wine on its own.

Cheese is often paired with Dessert wine.

Vanilla ice cream is a different story and we think it can compliment many a dessert wine. Sauternes, Tokaji or a PX Sherry or Late Bottle Vintage port with, or even on, vanilla ice cream can be divine. Additionally, the rich, fattiness of many cheeses can be a terrific compliment to the sweetness of many dessert wines. Good quality dark chocolate goes well with many dessert wines, especially port.

Serving temperature is again mostly up to individual tastes. Ports and sherries we find do not provide much reward for taking them below cellar temperature.

tokaji hungary wine

2002 Oremus Tokaji Aszu

On the other hand, Tokaji, Ice Wines, sweet Rieslings and sometimes Sauternes can improve with some time in the refrigerator before serving. Again, no hard or fast rules here, so try your favourite dessert wine at various temperatures and see what suits your own palate. One thing we do not recommend is heating up a dessert wine. We know that can work well with Brandy or Grand Marnier for some, but we generally recommend avoiding that with sweet wine.

Many sweet wines will come in a smaller bottle, often 375 ml instead of the standard 750 ml. These smaller sizes are often a better format as dessert wines serving sizes are so much smaller. If you do not finish your bottle. You can always re-cork it and put it in the fridge.


2013 Chateau de Fargues

Most dessert wines have higher acids as well as higher sugars and this tends to act as a bit of a preservative. Non-fortified dessert wines will probably comfortably last 5 days in your fridge after being opened. Fortified wines might last up to 2 weeks. But if you want to maximize the life of that unfinished bottle of dessert wine, have a look at the article we did on the subject of preserving leftover wine.

The Italians have a phrase: “vina da meditzione” or wines of meditation. Many dessert wines are just that. At the end of a delicious meal, to retire to a comfortable chair and carry on a conversation with good friends or listen to contemplative music and sip on a delicious dessert wine, well it just does not get much better than that!

Look for subsequent articles here that will give you more detail on the six broad types of dessert wines we have listed here.



    Bold & Sweet dessert wines can be paired with chocolate, fruit or dessert creations to accentuate their boldness. Good information shared.

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    • Some of the best wine/food pairings around. One of us isn’t much into sweet desserts so the wine becomes just that ;).

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    I always seem to forget dessert wines (I wish I forgot dessert as easily! LOL!). I should definitely keep Port in the house (it really makes me happy). There are so many great dessert wines out there. I guess I think of it as such an indulgence that I only look for them or pull them out on special occassions.

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    • It’s the same for us but we hope to change that. As you say, never a bad thing to keep some on hand right ;)?

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    Informative overview. We’re big fans of dessert wines of all types choosing to sip it in place of dessert yet we don’t actually drink it that often. How about you? Those Italians have it down!

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    • We’re exactly the same. Every time we have it we scratch our heads and wonder why we don’t drink it more often. Such a nice way to finish a great meal…

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    • Definitely one of our favourites too!

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    A great overview of the dessert wine landscape. Funny, I’m so into food and wine that I rarely consider a dessert wine itself for dessert, but it would certainly satisfy a sweet tooth. The dessert wine and food pairing I’ve enjoyed most often has been Port with an ounce or two of good quality dark chocolate!

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    • We seem to have the same issue…dessert wines have never factored in as a regular thing for us and every time we have a good one, we question why. And…we’re 100% with you on the Port/dark chocolate pairing!

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