People love wine. People love dessert. It seems fairly logical that dessert wine would be an incredibly popular thing to put in a glass after dinner. While not exactly under-appreciated, the world of dessert wine could be described as at least a bit under-explored. Fortified wines such as Vermouth, Port, and Sherry, and even infused wines such as Chinato could be considered part of the dessert wine family, but each of those topics deserves to be examined on its own.
Here we'll just focus on some common types of un-fortified wines that could pair well with desserts or even stand as dessert on their own.
Rieslings & Zinfandels Basically, dessert wine, also called sweet wine, differs from "regular" wine in that, somewhere along the way, higher levels of sugar have been intentionally left in the finished product. Achieving this sweetness can be accomplished in several ways. The easiest way to do it is to make wine out of super sweet grapes. Vintners do this by harvesting the fruit later in the season, past peak ripeness for making a dry table wine, thereby increasing the amount of sugar each precious little globe holds. Usually quite fruity with decent acidity, excellent examples of this style are late-harvest Rieslings and Zinfandels. In terms of pairing, a late-harvest white will complement lighter desserts such as poached pears or fruit tarts and pies, while late-harvest reds can hold their own with rich chocolate concoctions or creamy cheeses. -Gustafson Family Estates Late Harvest Zinfandel, $20 at South Lyndale Liquors, 5300 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; by the glass at Borough, 730 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
Noble Rot Another method of capturing sweetness in the grape while it's still on the vine, arguably the one responsible for producing the most legendary (and by far the most expensive) dessert wines, is to harvest grapes that have been infected by a fungus (yes, really) called Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. Botrytis grows on the grape skin, breaks it down, and dries the fruit out, thereby concentrating the sugars. Red grapes are usually useless once infected; only a few types of white grapes, under perfect conditions, will produce a viscous, complex, honeyed liquid gold. The most famous wines of this style are the French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji. Their richness allows them to pair well with nearly everything from bleu cheese to chocolate cheesecake. Sauternes in particular is a wine of such complexity that the classic pairing is not a dessert at all, but foie gras. -Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes 1997, $219 at Haskell's, multiple locations -Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste Sauternes, by the glass at W.A. Frost, 374 Selby Ave., St. Paul -Royal Tokaji Red Label 5 Puttonyos, $44 at Surdyk's, 303 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis -Kiralyudvar "Ilona" Tokaji by the glass at Borough, 730 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
Straw Wines Perhaps the most ancient method of sweetening up wine grapes is to actually dry them out, removing the water to concentrate the sugar -- more or less turning them into raisins. In France, these are sometimes referred to as "straw wines" because of the technique of laying the grapes out to dry on straw mats. In Italy, wines made with dried grapes are called passito, with the most famous of these being Vin Santo. It is a luxurious, thick, carameled, and nutty wine with rich raisin notes. In Tuscany, Vin Santo is paired with biscotti, and tradition encourages dipping the dry cookies in the wine to get the best flavor out of both. Let's just let that sink in a moment...dunking cookies in wine. -Felsina Vin Santo, $50 at France 44, 4351 France Ave. S., Minneapolis -Monsanto Vin Santo "Chimera" by the glass at Alma, 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis
Ice Wine In countries where the temperature can get downright frosty, there's another style of dessert wine -- ice wine. To produce ice wine, the grapes are left on the vine late into the year, leaving them vulnerable to freezing. Freezing forces out some of the water, leaving the fruit with an increased concentration of sugar. Once picked, the grapes are actually pressed while still frozen. Germany is the most famous ice wine (achtung...eiswein!) producer, with Riesling being the preferred grape. Other northern European countries as well as the U.S. and Canada produce wines in this style. Ice wines are usually full-bodied and fruity, but also more acidic than most other dessert wines. The higher acidity makes this style a good choice to pair with cheeses and custards, while the fruitiness complements fresh and baked fruits well. -2012 Kiona Vineyards Chenin Blanc Ice Wine, $26 at France 44, 4351 France Ave. S., Minneapolis -Dr. Loosen Eiswein by the glass, Kings Wine Bar, 4555 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
Moscato Lastly, there's a variety of sweet sparkling wines to consider. A popular and inexpensive example is Italy's Moscato d'Asti. Made with the Muscat grape, this bubbly wine is full of peaches and floral notes. It's bright, crisp, and low in alcohol, which makes it a perfect choice when you need something sweet before a meal or if you're too full for dessert after. For an interesting change, don't overlook Moscato's red-grape neighbor, Brachetto d'Acqui. It shares all of the same characteristics but with strawberry fruit and a hint of white pepper. Great on its own, it also works well alongside simple treats like dark chocolate or a shot of espresso. -Vietti Moscato d'Asti, $17 at South Lyndale Liquors, 5300 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; by the glass at 112 Eatery, 112 N. Third St., Minneapolis -Marenco Pineto Brachetto d'Acqui, $23 at France 44, 4351 France Ave. S., Minneapolis; by the glass at Pizzeria Lola, 5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis
Here in the Twin Cities, we're not inundated with a wide variety of dessert wines, but several shops have decent selections. South Lyndale Liquors, Surdyk's, Haskell's, and France 44 are good choices in Minneapolis while the Wine Thief and Solo Vino are good options if you're looking in St. Paul. The wide variety and unique production methods make dessert wines a versatile and interesting addition to any feast. Whether accompanying a dish or just on their own, these wines have a rich, complex sweetness that encourages savoring and lingering over -- the perfect way to end a meal.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.