There are a couple of ways to make a dessert wine. Of course, the cheap and easy way is to simply add sugar to the wine. This practice, however, is only used with cheap, poorly made, quaffing wines. The other way is to let the “residual” sugar in the wine sweeten it naturally.
To make sure there is sweetness in a wine, a winemaker can either pick the grapes very late in the season, so that there is enough sugar left over after fermentation to still have sweetness in the wine, or do what port producers do and add neutral grape spirits (brandy) to the wine to stop the fermentation early. The latter process not only keeps residual sugar in the wine but ups the alcohol level, too.
There are dozens, probably hundreds, of different dessert wines out there. One of the most famous comes from Bordeaux and is called Sauternes. The grapes of Sauternes are often stricken with a beneficial mold, Botrytis cinerea. This mold dries out the grapes and increases the sugar content. The result is incredibly concentrated wines that are well balanced and often have notes of honey.
Another region famous for its dessert wines is Germany. German wines can also be stricken with Botrytis. Germans make Eiswein, which translates to ice wine. Eiswein grapes are literally frozen on the vine and hand-picked one by one. The pickers must wear gloves so that their hands do not warm the grapes past freezing. The freezing of the grapes concentrates the sugar in them, and the result is wines that can be incredibly intense in their sweetness, yet balanced by the acidity natural in German Riesling.
Here in California, we make late-harvest wines. The grape most commonly used to make late-harvest wine is zinfandel. A good late-harvest zin will have sweetness but also a lot of that jammy flavor we all love in our zins. It is usually something you want to pour on your pancakes as much as you want to drink it.
The trick to late-harvest zinfandel — and, really, all sweet wines — is to retain balance. If the sweet wine is unbalanced and doesn’t have enough acidity, it will end up being flabby and cloying.
Dessert wines often come in half-bottle sizes, because a little goes a long way. If you have never had one to complement dessert or ice cream, you are missing out. Dessert wines are available at all wine shops and most grocery stores. Shopper’s Corner in Santa Cruz has an especially good selection. Cheers!
- Austin Twohig is a certified sommelier and partner in The Santa Cruz Experience, which conducts winery tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.