Sweet California Dessert Wines

Sweet wines, also called dessert wines, date back to the earliest days of California wine production. Until the 1960s, dessert wines were more popular nationwide than dry table wines. Today, they represent just a small portion of California’s wine production, but perhaps as a result, their quality is better than ever.

Dessert wines are a very varied group. Some of them have no more alcohol than table wines, for example, and others contain as much as 20 percent alcohol. Some of them are white, and some are red. They also come from many different grape varieties. But one characteristic that dessert wines all have in common is that they’re highly flavorful and very rich. You can sip these wines with dessert or drink them after your dinner, as dessert itself.

California makes sweet wines in just about every style that exists, from a wide range of grape varieties. These styles include the following:

  • Late-harvest wines: By the time the grapes for late-harvest wines are harvested, they’ve become so ripe on the vine that some of their sugar remains in the wine after fermentation. They’re usually white wines from aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc.

  • Botrytised wines: Botrytised wines are late-harvest wines whose grapes were attacked by botrytis, a fungus that concentrates the grapes’ sugar. In France’s Sauternes region and in Germany’s greatest Riesling vineyards, the botrytis attack occurs naturally when just the right combination of sunshine and humidity exists. In California, botrytis sometimes occurs naturally, and some wineries introduce botrytis to the grapes after harvest. The grape varieties for botrytised wines include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.

  • Alcohol-added wines: Alcohol-added (fortified) wines are sweet because the winemaker adds neutral alcohol to them during fermentation, killing the yeasts and therefore leaving sugar in the wines. They can be white or red. Quady’s Essencia, from the Muscat grape, is an excellent wine in this category.

  • Port-style wines: These are sweet alcohol-added wines made in the manner of Portugal’s famous red Port wines: Alcohol is added to the wine during the early stages of fermentation to preserve natural grape sweetness, and the wine is subsequently aged in wood for varying periods, depending on the specific style of Port being made. Styles vary from young to aged and from simple to complex.

    Port-style wines sometimes come from native Portuguese varieties grown in California, such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, and in other cases come from Zinfandel, Charbono, Petite Sirah, or even Cabernet. Plenty of really inexpensive California “Ports” exist as well.

  • Sherry-type wines: These are alcohol-added white wines that can be sweet or dry (when dry, they fall into the category of aperitif wines, for pre-dinner). Sweet Sherries actually ferment to dryness and are subsequently fortified with alcohol and sweetened.

Dessert wines often come in half-bottles that contain 375 milliliters (compared to normal 750-ml wine bottles) These wines go a long way: Generally, you have a smaller serving than you would of a table wine — about 2 or 3 ounces — because they’re so very rich. Skimping on price will give you a wine that has sweetness and flavor but not the special quality that comes from using the best grapes and from the handcrafted winemaking processes that the top wineries employ.

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