Dessert wines, also known as sweet wines, are an intrinsic but often overlooked part of the world of wine. From port to sherry, ice wine to late harvest, there’s no shortage of styles of dessert wines to enjoy. Madeira cemented its place in American history during the 17th century when it was imported to the colonies and many people have the memory of their grandparents sipping sherry or port in the study after dinner.
But these days, many wine drinkers are reluctant to try sweeter styles. “There is a myth that dry wines are “better” than sweet wines,” says Erin Scala, owner of In Vino Veritas. “But throughout history, even in ancient Rome, some of the most famous wines on the planet have been sweet wines.” In addition, she notes that cost and health factors deter people from indulging in this style of wine. “Everyone is trying to cut down on the best part of dinner: dessert and sweet wines! But, I always save room.”
So, as a wine consumer, what is the best way to approach and enjoy dessert wines?
Understanding Quality Dessert Wines
In some circumstances, a flawed, unbalanced wine has its imperfections masked with added sugar. This method could have led to the idea that dry wines are superior to their sweeter counterparts. When the intention is set from the beginning to craft a spectacular product, magic can happen. “It’s easy to make a wine with high residual sugar. The trick is to make a wine with great fruit expression while balancing the sugar with acidity,” says Jay Youmans, MW, of Capital Wine School in Washington, DC. “Great dessert wines are balanced.” The ability to stand alongside food is also important in measuring the quality of a dessert wine. “A dessert wine should complement a dessert or cheese course, not overwhelm it,” comments Carl DiManno, winemaker at 868 Estate Vineyards. “Clean wines that are sweet, but not cloying, with well-balanced acidity seems to work best.”
The Winemakers Perspective
“Making a dessert wine, for a winemaker, is almost always a passion project.” Erin uttered this sentiment during a tasting at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion in 2018. When asked to expand on that statement, she replied, “Dessert wines are usually made sweet by some form of concentration, like drying or freezing, so usually it takes 5–10 times as many grape bunches to make a tiny bottle of sweet wine. So, sweet wines are usually more expensive, notoriously difficult to sell, painstaking projects to undertake, and they re-allocate high-quality grapes to a project that will make a minimal amount of wine. But to me — it’s worth it!” In Virginia, where winemakers are already known for their experimental spirit and dedication to their craft, dessert wines add another layer of determination. And it’s definitely paid off — during the judging of the 2020 Governor’s Cup Competition, Bartholomew Broadbent, wine importer and a longtime expert on port and Madeira said Virginia’s dessert wines are, “…world class. I think they are amongst the best in the world.”
Dessert Wines Standing Out
Proving Bartholomew’s point-of-view, ten dessert wines have found their way into the coveted Virginia Governor’s Cup Case since 2015. In 2020, 868 Estate Vineyard’s 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito earned the top score out of all wines entered into the competition, earning them the Governor’s Cup. When asked about his decision to allocate their small planting of Vidal grapes to a dessert wine, DiManno said, “It was a chance to experiment. I do enjoy that aspect of winemaking. A well-conceived trial is satisfying even if the results are not a commercial success.”
How to Enjoy Dessert Wines
Dessert wines are worthy of our time, attention and palate. But what’s the best way to taste them? At a tasting bar at the winery? In an educational class about wine? With food or without?
Jay says, “After a great meal, there is nothing better than a dessert wine instead of dessert!” Erin insists that dessert wines can be more versatile than their name suggests. “There are countless applications of sweet wines being used outside of a dessert course. They can be particularly fine pairings with spicy dishes, salty dishes, and fatty dishes.” However, if your sweet tooth is aching, here are a few Virginia dessert wine pairings we recommend:
Chocolate: Fifty-Third Winery Noche, Fabbioli Cellars Raspberry Merlot
Stilton Blue Cheese: 868 Estate Vineyards 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito
Creme Brulee: Linden Late Harvest Petit Manseng, King Family Loreley
Cheesecake: Veritas Petit Manseng
Dried fruit and nuts: Ankida Ridge Rockgarden Vin Doux
Fresh fig tart: Stinson Vineyards Imperialis