You’ve finally got it right. Red wine with meat. White wine with fish. Now you’ve got a whole new category to consider: Dessert Wine.

Relax. This one’s a no-brainer. There’s just one rule to follow: Pour with dessert and enjoy.

What is Dessert Wine?

Dessert wines often come in smaller bottles (375ml) and are better served in smaller portions. They are by definition sweet; however, the sugar develops naturally in the grape itself and is not typically added during the winemaking process.

Dessert wines can be divided into 2 basic groups: Naturally Sweet and Fortified.

Naturally Sweet

Dessert wines classified as naturally sweet can be grouped into three different categories.

• Over-Ripened Grapes

Winemakers sometimes use over-ripened grapes to attain the amount of natural sweetness required for a dessert wine. Leaving grapes on the vine beyond the normal harvest time results in optimum sugar levels and decreased water content.

Ever wonder why dessert wines are so expensive? The later the harvest is done, the more the water loss will be, which means lower juice yield per ton of fruit. Also, the longer the grapes hang, the greater the risk of loss due to bad weather or disease. The winemaker has to cover his opportunity cost and risk by charging more for this labor-intensive, handcrafted product.

• Dried Grapes

A winemaker can reduce his risk of losing grapes and still decrease the water content by letting the fruit dry out. This can be done naturally in the sun on beds of straw. For faster, cheaper and more secure results, grapes can be dried on screen trays or even hung on strings in a special, temperature-controlled room.

• Frozen Grapes

Wines made from frozen grapes are called “Ice Wine.” They are generally high in sugar and acidity. They typically come from cold climates.

When grapes freeze on the vine, the winemaker harvests and presses them as quickly as possible because the water in the fruit is still solid; only the sweet juices with a lower freezing point will be released to be fermented.

• “Rotten” Grapes

Another way to naturally decrease the water content and concentrate sugars is to let grapes rot on the vine. “Noble Rot” or “Gray Rot” is the result of a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea. It enters the fruit without breaking the skin and “dries” the grapes from the inside. It also decreases some of the acidity level, leaving most of the sugar intact.

Wines made from these fruits are sweet and complex with generous bouquets of honey, marmalade, prunes, dried peach, apricot and other dried exotic fruits.

One of the most famous and expensive wines made from this process is Château d’Yquem from the Sauternes area of Bordeaux in France.

Sweet Fortified Wines

The principle behind the making of sweet fortified wines is simple. To preserve the original sweetness of the juice, fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is consumed by adding alcohol. The resulting dessert wines are sweet and high in alcohol, up to 20%.

Sweet fortified wines can be enjoyed as a cocktail or aperitif, after dinner with certain desserts or cheeses, or served alone, as you would a cordial or brandy. Some of the world's great fortified wines include Madeira, Muscat, Marsala, Sherry and Port.

Two more tips:

• Like dinner wines, white dessert wines should generally be served somewhat chilled. Reds should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled.

• A dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dessert it accompanies.

So, the next time you invite friends for a casual evening or dinner, tell them to save room for a rich, delicious glass of dessert!

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: info@crossingvineyards.com

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