I have enjoyed a good glass of table wine many times with my meals. Wine tasting parties have always been a favorite pastime, especially when combined with cheese. No, I am not from Wisconsin so I do not rate a "cheese head hat". Recently, after a pleasant dinner party with good friends, I was introduced to a new class of wines that I had never tried before. The dessert wine I was served turned out to be the fitting end to a fabulous evening.
Grapes used for dessert wines are not harvested in the same fashion and timing as your typical table wine grapes. The goal is to increase the sugar content of the grape by mainly harvesting them later in the season. Often in dessert wines a noble rot forms on the grapes before harvest. In another dessert wine type named ice wine, grape harvest is delayed until the first freeze. Some times these wines are developed by pausing the fermentation process.
There are several types of grapes primarily used in the making of dessert wines. Semillon grapes are commonly used in Sauternes that often smell like the wildflowers where it is grown. Muscat grapes may remind you of orange and honey. Fendant and Chasselas are typically found primarily in Switzerland. Spicy Gewurztraminer wines are good tasting and seem to age well. Fortified wines like sherry, port and Madeira are made differently than your typical dessert wine, but are also a great choice and considered in many circles to be "honorary dessert wines". Be aware that some wineries are making great dessert wines by "late-harvesting" table wine grapes used for Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier.
When serving dessert wines, a general rule is the wine should be sweeter than the food it is served with. Good matches include fresh sweet fruits, bakery goods and chocolate and toffee based dishes. White dessert wines should be served chilled but not to cold, while red dessert wines are mainly served at room temperature. Because of their sweetness, dessert wines come in smaller bottles and often are more expensive than table wines. It is best to serve these wines in a small glass with a pour of only 2 ounces. Dessert wine can be served without dessert, but in any case with or without, ready your body for the sugar high that will result.
Selecting the right dessert wine for your next entertainment event could be a little challenging. A great suggestion is to try a "test-run" before you plan your gathering. Get your chosen dessert prepared ahead of time. Taste the wine you think will compliment your dessert choice and note your impressions. Lastly, taste your wine along with your dessert. If you find the combination pleasant to your palate, you are home free. If the combination dulls the flavor of the wine, consider going with a less-sweet dessert or a sweeter wine.
What I learned about dessert wines has been known for a long time by cultured Europeans. On this continent, we have always appreciated having dessert after our meals, but have not extensively appreciated what a good accompanying wine could do to our "taste-buds". I have decided that having a dessert wine in my cellar to enjoy occasionally is a personal requirement. As I always say, select your wine to fit your individual taste, store and serve it properly, and enjoy.