14 Oct How Are Dessert Wines Made?
Dessert wines are a great way to toast off the evening, paired with desserts, cheese, fruit or chocolate. Dessert wines are perfect for intimate dinner parties or gathering. So, how are these rich, delicious dessert wines made?
Varietals used to produce dessert wines:
There are number of grape varietals used to produce dessert wines. Some of the more popular varietals used to produce these succulent wines include:
Port Wines: Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta/Tinto Cão and Tinta Roriz.
Ice Wines: Cabernet Franc
Noble Rot & Ice Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Sèmillon, Muscadelle, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Vidal
Madiera & Fortified Wines: Boal, Malvasia, Sercial, Verdelho
Red & Sweet White Wines: Muscat
The Process For Developing Different Dessert Wines
Late Harvest/Ice Wines (Eiswein)
Unlike the regular wines we’re accustomed to seeing at wine shops and liquor or grocery stores, dessert wines are not as great in number as say, a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Dessert wines require another level of hard work, detail, experience, patience, and skillfulness in order to produce superior quality. However, the process for producing (these) wines is still very similar to the process for producing regular [table] wines. The main differences being: the grapes are harvested late; the grapes remain on the vine until signs of Noble Rot is seen; fermentation methods vary slightly; and dessert wines can take anywhere from several years to a hundred years to age before they are offered to the public.
Most grapes used for dessert wines are picked later in the season (known as Late Harvest), usually towards the end of November and sometimes into the month of December. The extra time on the vine allows the grape to mature and become sweeter – the aim is to pick the grapes when they have a good balance of sugar and acidity, as a result they sometimes become shriveled. Old World wine regions in France and Germany harvest their grapes for dessert wines at a later time. Sometimes the wine has so much sugar that during fermentation the yeast is unable to convert all of the sugar into alcohol. Winemakers utilize yeasts to aid in this process and produce the results they desire. Some regions in Europe completely ferment the sugar. The result is semi-sweet wine with great complexity – meaning the wine has striking and subtle aromas and flavors that make the wine more interesting.
Botrytis [Pronounced boh-trahy-tis]
Also known as “Noble Rot,” botrytis takes place when the grapes are ripe and usually happens under moist conditions. A grayish mold attacks the grape clusters, causing tiny little lesions where water is released. When the grapes are then exposed to drier climates they prune up. The grapes are left with a concentration of sugar, acid, yeast and other minerals. French winemakers usually conduct their harvest by hand, picking the grapes individually. What’s more, the harvest doesn’t happen in one workday; it’s a process that can last a week or more. Believe it or not, these wines are some of the most renowned dessert wines in Europe.
This method, known as “Freezing or Frozen Grapes,” is practiced in regions with colder climates. Both Germany and Canada are famous for their ice wines or “Eiswein.” These countries run a very tight ship when it comes to sugar levels, creating balanced flavors and temperatures. When the grapes are frozen the concentrated sugars can more easily be separated from the frozen water. Some of the best wines come from grapes that were frozen on the vine. However, occasionally the regions in these countries will experience a milder winter and the natural process of cold weather freezing the grapes does not happen. In these instances, winemakers sometimes have to wait until the end of January or February to harvest the grapes. In turn, because some regions don’t have super cold winters, some wineries and vineyards place their grapes in quick freezers to duplicate this process to achieve similar results.
Drying of the grapes happens to be one of the oldest methods used to process grapes for dessert wine. Going back thousands of years, most winemakers still practice these methods. There are many different ways to dry out the grapes – placing grapes on straw mats to dry out in the sun; hanging grapes from racks in the warehouse; and even placing them on rooftops. Generally all methods produce similar results. Countries that produce sweet “raisen wines,” or “straw wines” are: France’s Vin de Paille, Italy’s Amarone, and Cyprus’s Commandaria wine. Actually, Sherry is also made from dried grapes like, Pedro Ximèmez and Moscatel del Alejandría grapes. However, the process for producing Sherry has additional steps.
Fortified wines, those with a spirit (alcohol or liquor) added to it, include, Commandaria, Madeira, Marsala, Port and Vermouth. Brandy is the spirit most commonly added to fortified wine, however this can vary depending on the winemaker or region.
If you’re wondering, “What’s the purpose for adding an alcoholic spirit to the wine,” it’s to remove the remaining yeasts, bringing the fermentation process to a halt before all the sugar is converted to ethanol (alcohol). The final result is a sweet wine with higher alcohol levels. Port wines are often a blend of multiple vintages. The vibrant ruby red fruity ports are aged either, 2 – 4 years other ports are aged between 10 – 40 years in casks that help improve the flavors of the wine. Vintage ports are made in the best years and are aged for a couple of years and released to the public but are meant to age another 10+ years before they can be enjoyed.
Other fortified wines like Sherry don’t always have a sweet side. Some are specifically made to take on a semi-sweet, sweet or dry form. However, the wine with the “biggest” personality (meaning weight) is Madiera. Madiera is also fortified in the middle of fermentation and goes through a mixture of meticulous methods to help develop its character. The killer-combo of sugar, tannins, yeast topped off with a little extra liquor are what give the fortified wines their impervious character – proving they can withstand air, heat and age beautifully.
Hopefully after reading this article you have a better understanding of dessert wines and are inspired to try a few or invest in a couple good ones that will last you a couple if not several decades. Cheers!