The Sweet Rewards of Dessert Wines

Classic dessert wines are wonderful, complex, and delicious beverages. The range of dessert wines is considerable and growing. With today’s high-quality kits, you can make terrific dessert wine at home and, with a little tweaking, give the finished product a unique touch.

Dessert wines don’t always have a great reputation in popular wine culture, where many people believe dry means good and sweet means bad. One reason for this might be that some dessert wines are merely failed wines that have been altered by adding brandy to overpower any bad tastes. But a good dessert wine has its place on the table and can be just as rewarding as a good Cabernet or Chardonnay.

The classic dessert wines are Sauternes and Barsac, which are the two most widely known; late harvest Riesling, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer; Madeira; Orange Muscat from California and Australia; Hungarian or Australian Tokay; ice wines from Canada, Germany, and Austria; Muscatel from Portugal; and Beaumes-de-Venise from the Rhône area of France.

Dessert wines also encompass the lesser known late-harvest Vidals. Ports of all descriptions are also considered dessert wine. However, they are so complex and varied that they are a complete topic unto themselves.

It’s easy to produce some of these fine wines at home. The exact grapes, juices, or concentrates might not be available, but a little ingenuity and imagination can produce surprisingly good results, with one or two exceptions. We can get reasonably close to a Bual Madeira, but it is more difficult to get a Malmsey, which is the sweetest of the type of Madeiras that contain at least 85 percent of one grape variety. Those with less than 85 percent are labeled with descriptions such as dry and sweet rather than proper names. Other dessert wines can be quite rewarding, such as Sauternes.

While Gewürztraminer and Riesling are better known as table wines to be enjoyed with food, the late-harvest versions are sweet wines and are regarded almost exclusively as dessert wines. Sauternes and Barsac, which are often categorized together, use Semillon or a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. In Bordeaux these grapes are only used when they have Botrytis, also known as noble rot. Botrytis cinerea is a rot that gives Sauternes their distinctive character.

The flavor characteristics of noble rot can be reproduced in the home winery by adding apricot flavor in the form of apricot nectar to the must during primary fermentation. Flavor to taste but be careful not to overdo it. Also, keep a reserve of must (16.7 ounces, 500 mL) to add back at stabilizing time. This is for fruit flavor more than for sweetness. Your finished Sauternes should have a specific gravity of no less than 1.040. This gives you two options. One is to ferment the wine out and then sweeten it with a commercial sweetener. Commercial sweeteners generally are sucrose, glucose, or both, with some potassium sorbate to prevent the added sugar from refermenting. This is the easy way to sweeten.

Your other choice is to chaptalize (add sugar) to raise the alcohol to 14 percent or more for the finished wine and halt fermentation at the required specific gravity. Adding 8.9 ounces (250 g) of corn sugar raises the alcohol content of a five-gallon batch (18.9 L) by 0.5 percent. Use glucose syrup (normally used in liqueurs) to add body to the wine. The amount of glucose syrup to add is totally up to you based on the body or thickness you want. Usually about four ounces (120 mL) is a good starting point. Adjust from there and fine tune with a commercial sweetener.

Sweet wines are prone to refermentation caused by potassium sorbate and malo-lactic fermen-tation. To prevent this, use an extra half-teaspoon (2.5 mL) of potassium metabisuphite — that is, a half-teaspoon more than the amount recommended for the wine you are making. Add the potassium metabisulphite first to kill any bacteria, and be sure to add it in small increments. Then add the potassium sorbate, if it is being used. The potassium sorbate kills the yeast and prevents unwanted additional fermentation.

Agitate the wine to dissolve the level of additional sulphites and sorbates. Stir for three minutes twice a day for three days, or shake for the same amount of time. You can titrate to double check the levels. An acceptable level of sulphite is 50 parts per million.

Late-harvest wines are easy. All have a high starting Brix, above 25°. Select your finishing sweetness level and adjust your alcohol level accordingly. Remember, each 8.9 ounces (250 g) of corn sugar added during fermentation adds 0.5 percent alcohol content to the finished wine.

You can ferment cold, below 60° F (16° C), to intensify the fruit. Stay away from enzymes. These produce erratic results and in most cases badly balanced wines. Use sweet reserve for regular juices or concentrates. But if you can get really late harvest grapes or juice, just make the wine without chaptalizing (adding sugar). When making German-style Rieslings such as Kabinett, watch that you don’t overdo the alcohol content. These are low-alcohol wines, usually 9 percent or a little higher.

Ice Wines

Ice wine and ice-style wines use grapes that are left on the vines until December or January. When the temperature drops to around 10° F (-12° C) for three or more nights, the grapes are harvested during the night and pressed while frozen. Conversely, grapes can be left on the vine until the Brix level is sufficient, then picked, flash frozen, and pressed. This process is known as freeze fracturing. (A technicality: The wines produced by these grapes can’t be called ice wine according to the Vintners Quality Alliance in Canada, because the ice is made by the freezer and not by nature.)

There are several ice-wine-style kits on the market. The prime grapes for this wine are Riesling, occasionally Gewürztraminer and, in Canada and New York state, Vidal. Vidal is a thick-skinned grape not usually subject to rot. Its hardiness lends itself well to ice wine. Generally, ice-wine kits made with good-quality juice or high-quality concentrate do not need to be tweaked. Doing so often reduces the complexity


Madeira requires more time and care. The varietal Madeiras are Bual, Sercial, Malmsey, and Verdelho, not exactly readily available in North America. Use Chenin Blanc, chop up a couple of pounds of dried figs, and add them to the must during primary fermentation. Bump up the alcohol as high as you can and finish the wine.

Now comes the key: The wine must be cooked in an oven. The oven is called an estufa, and it’s easy to make. It consists of an insulated box of sufficient size to hold your container. The box or container can be anything fire-resistant that can be

insulated to hold the heat and stay in one piece. A 40-watt bulb inside the container will generate enough heat to keep your estufa around 130° F (54° C). Leave the wine in the estufa to “cook” for three months. Be sure to check regularly that the bulb has not burned out.

Filter and fortify the finished wine. Fortify with pure, refined alcohol, non-scented vodka or, preferably, natural pale brandy if you can find it. The ideal alcohol content is greater than 20 percent (0.53 percent alcohol is produced by 1° Brix).


Orange Muscat has a sweet original gravity of 1.040 and 12 percent to 14 percent alcohol. Use a Muscat concentrate, hold back a sweet reserve of 21.7 ounces (650 mL) and add some frozen orange juice when mixing the must. The amount depends on your individual taste. In your first batch use six ounces (180 mL) of orange-juice concentrate, and then in later batches adjust it to your liking.

The wine is dense, so using a commercial sweetener will add density to your finished wine, as will glycerin. Three to four drops of glycerin per bottle is a good starting point. The “legs” effect (streaking) on your glass is caused by the natural glycerine in grapes.

The amount of commercial sweetener you add to any wine is discretionary; most manufacturers recommend an amount. Take half that amount as a starting point and adjust by density using your hydrometer.

Don’t be fooled. Remember, the amount of sweetener will vary with each individual batch. If your starting gravity is 0.998 and you want a final gravity of 1.008, the sweetener needed will be less than that required if your final gravity is 0.992. Alternatively, you can add sugar by taste. Adding two ounces (56 g) of sugar per gallon (3.8 L) of juice or wine raises its Brix one degree.

The problem with adding sugar by taste is that you probably will oversweeten the wine. That’s because the wine is young and sharp now. As it ages and mellows, the sweet taste will become more prominent.