A Delightful Way to End a Meal

Americans have always been uncertain about dessert wines—all those ports, sherries and others that seem to be the province of dotty old ladies or rich men with English accents. But these sweet but complex wines can be a delightful way to finish a meal. Here’s what you need to know…

Different Styles

The one thing dessert wines have in common is that they’re sweet. But the best dessert wines aren’t sugary soft-drink sweet but fuller and more approachable, with other flavors besides sweetness.

The most common dessert wines are ports from Portugal and sherries from Spain. Both are made with wine grapes, though port with red grapes and sherry with white. There are dry sherries, such as fino, but all port is sweet.

International law doesn’t allow most ports or sherries made anywhere else in the world to be called by those names, so non-Portuguese ports and non-­Spanish sherries will be labeled as “dessert wine,” “port-style,” “sherry-style” or something similar.

The production techniques for port and sherry are much more complicated than those for table wine and involve long aging (often years) and the addition of brandy or other alcohol to fortify them. That’s why they’re also called fortified wines.

Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made on the island of ­Madeira—it has a caramel taste and a salty tang. Other dessert wines can be made with fruit other than grapes, such as ­raspberries or blackberries, and some even can be sparkling. Ice wine uses grapes that have been left to freeze on the vines during winter and is among the sweetest and richest dessert wines, almost honeylike.

Perhaps the most famous dessert wines are the French Sauternes, a white made when a fungus called botrytis rots the grapes, leaving them higher in sugar than normal. This is an unpredictable process, and there isn’t even a guarantee it’s going to happen. Thus Sauternes are very expensive—the highly prized ­Chateau d’Yquem can cost $500 a bottle.

Most dessert wines are much cheaper, of course, but they do cost more than regular table wine. Keep in mind that a dessert wine serving is less than that of a dinner wine serving because the alcohol and sugar content are higher—one or two small glasses are more than sufficient. Thus a $20 half bottle actually can be the equivalent of a $10 or $15 full bottle of table wine and will stay fresh longer after it’s opened, sometimes even weeks. Dessert wines can be served with cheese, chocolate or other types of dessert or on their own after a meal.

Best Values

Osborne Fino ($15). Fino is a style of sherry that is less sweet, and ­Osborne is one of Spain’s best producers. This is an excellent introduction to sherry not only because it’s a value but because it has fino’s nutty and yeasty flavors. If you want to spend $10 more, Osborne Pedro Ximenez 1827, made with the Pedro Ximenez grape, is richer, nuttier and sweeter.

Old Vine Tinta Port WineFicklin Old Vine Tinta Port ($15). This is a fine value in a category where there aren’t many. Ficklin is a California producer that makes its wine using Portuguese methods and has been legally grandfathered in so that its wine can be called port. This may be a bit sweeter than Portuguese ports, without their raisiny flavor, but it’s still dark, plummy and balanced.

Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere ($15 for a half bottle). This Washington State white, made with the Riesling grape, is a late-harvest wine. That means the grapes are left on the grapevine longer than they normally would be, so the sugar becomes more concentrated. Look for peach, apricot and honey flavors and maybe a touch of brown sugar sweetness.

Quady Essensia Quady Essensia ($15 for a half bottle). California’s Quady Winery has been making quality ­dessert wines for almost 40 years, and the Essensia is one of the  dessert wines that has helped the winery last so long. This wine is made in the port style, with alcohol added to its orange muscat grapes. That means orange aromas with a very sweet apricot fruit taste and a hint of baking spices.

Jules Taylor Late Harvest Sauvignon BlancJules Taylor Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc ($15 for a half bottle). The white grape, sauvignon blanc, is a popular choice for late-harvest dessert wines, because the grapes have acid to balance the dessert wine sweetness. This New Zealand wine has lots of apricot, a honeyed sweetness and a touch of a ­citrusy sauvignon blanc character.

Jackson-Triggs Vidal IcewineJackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine ($20 for one-quarter bottle). This Canadian wine is made from the ­Vidal grape and is more sweet than fruity, with some tropical flavors underneath the sweetness. You also get ice wine’s traditional long, luscious, honeyed finish. It is pricey but worth it.