Dessert Wine Types: A Last Course Field Guide for Wine Lovers

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Glass of tawny port next to a plated dessertWhile you could technically call any wine that you drink with dessert a “dessert wine,” dessert wines are actually quite different from the reds and whites you might choose to pair with an appetizer or main course. These wines are an entire category of wines that undergo a different production process than table wines. They're generally quite sweet, and some, like port, are also higher in alcohol than any red or white you might serve with an appetizer or main course. These are the wines meant to have with — or even for — dessert.

Are you looking to expand your repertoire? Try something new and end your meal on a tasty and memorable note. We have a quick dessert wine guide to help get you started.

Reasons to Enjoy Dessert Wine

While dessert wines might tend toward the sweeter side and can occasionally be almost too sweet, there’s still a fair bit of diversity within the overall category. Here are just a few reasons why you should consider adding a dessert wine to the menu:

Pair It With a Great Dessert for an Unforgettable Taste Experience

Believe it or not, you can pair plenty of dessert wines with different types of desserts, not unlike you would pair any other wine with a main course. The right pairings can provide a delightful and unforgettable end to a meal. 

You Can Skip the Heavy Dessert

Some dessert wines are quite a bit sweeter than others. They’re also pretty rich. These qualities are what make these ideal as desserts themselves. In other words, it serves as both your after-dinner drink and dessert. 

After Dinner Socializing

Generally speaking, most occasions don’t end when the meal does. There’s a good chance that many of your guests linger a while longer, enjoying each other’s company. Dessert wines are perfect for this. They’re meant for savoring slowly, allowing them to carry you through post-dinner conversations.

Dessert Wines Taste Incredible

Last but certainly not least, one of the top reasons to consider adding a dessert wine to the lineup for your next gathering is because they taste amazing. However, many people have written off all dessert wines because they had one that was too sweet for their liking. The truth is that there is an incredible range of options out there. With a bit of research (and some tasting), you might be surprised to learn there’s at least one type that you enjoy. 

Dessert Wine Types

Now let’s take a closer look at the different wines available:


Sparkling dessert wines get their sweetness in a couple of different ways. The first is dosage, or the small amount of sugar that winemakers add before sealing the bottle. The other is from the use of more aromatic grapes, such as Muscat. While a Muscat or Moscato wine might not be any sweeter than other whites, higher amounts of aroma compounds trick your brain into thinking it is.

Fun fact: Many sparking dessert wines don’t taste as sweet as they actually are. Their higher acidity and carbonation tone down the sweetness levels, which provides balance. 

Lightly Sweet

These table wines are not technically classified as dessert wines, or even as sweet wines. However they are often slightly off-dry to the palate and are delightfully refreshing. Many of them are also bursting with fruity flavors. Popular varieties include:

  • Gewurztraminer - Typically dry unless made in a late harvest or dessert style. Like Muscat many people perceive Gewurztraminer as having a slightly sweet quality due to the intensity of its aroma and flavor.
  • German  Riesling - For less sweet options, steer away from late harvest versions (e.g. those designated Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, or Trockenbeerenauslese) as these tend to be sweeter.
  • Chenin Blanc Examples can be found from the U.S., the Loire Valley of France and South Africa. This grape can be dry or a little sweet. Again, you'll want to avoid late harvest versions if you're looking for just a touch of sweetness.
  • Viognier from the Condrieu AOP in France's Rhone region. A rich and unctuous aromatic wine with a perfumed aroma of peaches and stone fruit.

Along with being great dessert wines, lightly sweet wines also pair beautifully with Indian cuisine and other spicy foods. 

Richly Sweet

Made from some of the highest quality grapes, richly sweet wines feature high levels of sweetness and acidity. It’s those qualities that make these wines perfect for aging, and many can age for 50 years or more. 

Winemakers can produce richly sweet wines in many different ways:

  • Late harvest: Growers leave the grapes on the vine longer (after their typical harvest time), which allows them to become sweeter.
  • Noble rot: Growers intentionally allow a fungus called botrytis to develop and "rot" the grapes. Botrytis removes moisture, effectively concentrating the fruit’s sweetness. 
  • Straw mat (“passito”): Producers let the grapes dry or "raisin" on straw mats to concentrate sugars before they begin the winemaking process.
  • Ice wine (Eiswein): Grapes are left on the vine into the colder part of the season, then harvested and presed only if the grapes have become frozen.

Some varieties worth trying include Hungarian  Tokaji,  Recioto Della Valpolicella from Italy, and French Sauternes. Additionally, all of the varieties listed in the lightly sweet section have late harvest and/or botrytized ("noble rot") counterparts to explore.

Sweet Red

Sweet red wines can be deceptive. They don’t often taste as sweet as white wines with similar sugar levels because they’re higher in tannins, which tone down their natural sweetness.

While they aren’t as common as they used to be, there are some sweet reds worth trying, mostly from various regions of Italy:

  • Freisa
  • Lambrusco
  • Schiava
  • Brachetto d’Acqui


Fortified wines are the ones that typically come to mind first when people think of dessert wines. Winemakers produce them by adding a spirit (such as brandy) to halt the fermentation process, preserving more of the wine’s natural sugars. The result is a product that’s high in sugar and high in alcohol. 

Well-known fortified wines include:

How to Select a Dessert Wine for Any Occasion

Now that you know a bit more about dessert wines, here are a few tips for selecting a wine for any occasion.

Know Your Guests

While you might have a particular dessert wine that you enjoy, your guests might not have the same tastes. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are their sweetness preferences?
  • Do they typically drink red or white wines?
  • Is there a specific country of origin or region they prefer? 

The answers to these questions can help guide your selection.

Check the Label

Various terms on a dessert wine label can tell you a lot about what’s inside. For instance, “demi-sec” (French) and “semi secco” (Italian) tell you the wines are off-dry. Some words for “sweet” include:

  • Amabile (slightly sweet in Italian)
  • Dolce (Italian)
  • Doux or Moelleux (French)
  • Dulce (Spanish)

Consider Your Dessert

WWhen pairing a dessert wine with a plated dessert, the general rule is to ensure your wine is sweeter than the dessert. Some examples to try include:

  • Late harvest Gewurztraminer and apple pie
  • Brachetto d’Acqui and chocolate mousse/li>
  • Ice wine and lemon meringue pie
  • Sauternes or moscato and crème brûlée
  • Cream Sherry and tiramisu
  • Tawny Port and pecan pie
  • Sweet riesling and cheesecake

Choose the Right Wine Glasses

AAgain, dessert wines are best when sipped and savored slowly. They’re also typically meant for enjoying in smaller servings. Smaller  wine glasses, like port or sherry glasses, make ideal serving vessels for your after-dinner dessert wine of choice. But any wine glass with a smaller bowl will do just fine.

End Your Meal On a High Note

WWhether you’re hosting an intimate dinner party or a large family gathering, a great dessert wine can be the perfect ending to any occasion. No matter what you’re planning next, JJ Buckley Fine Wines has an array of high-quality dessert wines, port and sherry to meet all of your needs. And, if you need help, our knowledgeable wine specialists can help point you in the right direction. Visit JJ Buckley online to browse our extensive collection today!