Dessert Wines for the Holidays

End your meal on a sweet note


Dessert wines rarely seem to get their due. The idea of finishing one’s meal with something sweet is pretty common, so it is surprising how little dessert wine I see passed around tables, or even discussed for that matter. I think the facts that a little goes a long way (which means a bottle may rarely be finished), and most people seem pretty sated once the end of a meal rolls around accounts for these delicious nectars being overlooked.

Well, if any time is the right time for dessert wines it’s the holidays: a time when we look forward to lingering around the table, talking and sharing. Many people might recommend breaking out the dessert wines to accompany dessert. Seems like a natural, except for those who don’t really enjoy desserts! I prefer simple cookies for dessert, perfect to be paired with sweet dessert wines, but an even better pairing is a fine cheese plate!

Many people think about port wine when dessert wines get mentioned, but the truth is there are many more options besides port. What follows is a little rundown of some great options for when you choose to explore dessert wines.

2008 Torbreck The Bothie Barossa Valley Muscat Blanc 14%

Muscat grapes come in several varieties but they all share a wonderful floral tone. This Muscat Blanc from Australia adds wonderful citrus and caramel tones.

Citrusy and fragrant in a clean, bright way, with subtle supporting notes of powdery rose petals and herbal lime leaf and sage notes. Sweet on entry with enough acid to keep this fresh on the palate. It delivers an array of flavors that range from tropical to citrus fruits with caramel and custard tones and an almost banana crème pie underlay. A rich, if bright, wine that is sweet and lingers on the palate. 91pts

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2008 Harvest Moon Russian River Valley Gewurztraminer 10.5%

Gewürztraminer is also famed for its floral character, though it tends to be spicier than Muscat grapes. This example also shows the refreshing, slightly bitter pithy note that many Gewürztraminers show in the finish.

Gorgeous nose with rich, syrupy lychee, rambutan, tangerine and lime tones gently topped with light floral notes. A medium-bodied dessert wine, nice and almost elegant with fine acids balancing the rich fruits that recall the nose accented with hints of green tea. Not a blockbuster, but rather easy and well balanced with a slight hint of grapefruit pith bitterness on the moderately long finish. 89pts

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2007 Fortress Vineyards Finale Red Hills Lake County Semillon 12.5%

Semillon, along with Sauvignon Blanc, forms the backbone of the greatest dessert wines of them all: the Sauternes and Barsacs of Bordeaux. In this example you’ll find the typical richness that Semillon contributes to those blended wines.

This is full of fresh nutmeats on the nose, raw almonds and cashews with lightly confiture tones of bitter orange, dried pear and apricot and a heavy pollen top note. This is rich and mouth-filling, if a bit flat. It spreads over the palate with attractive peach nectar, candied chestnut and an almost malty tone. It’s intense and rich, gaining a creamy vanilla custard tone on the backend that leads to a fairly long finish, which reveals nice nutty nuances that complement the rich fruit. If there was a bit more acid here I would be more enthusiastic, but this still is quite delicious. 89pts

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2005 Feudo Arancio Hekate Passito Sicily 13%

This blend of aromatic grapes (Moscato, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier) provides an explosive bouquet to this Sicilian dessert wine. The palate was a bit simple, making this ideal to pair with something complex, like aged cheese.

Nicely aromatic and complex with notes of herbs, flowers and spice assenting the dried apricot, orange and candied pink grapefruit tones. Moderately sweet in the mouth, with subtle herbal and bitter almond elements adding detail to the honied peach and apricot fruit. The finish is a bit short and a bit spicy with nice notes of bitter apricot pits. The palate does not match the appeal of the nose. 87pts

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2009 Patterson Cellars Late Harvest Roussanne Columbia Valley 11.5%

This is a wine that grows on you. The nose is admittedly off-putting early on, as much for its distinct aromas as for its intensity. But it is a wine that draws you in with its complexity and balance -- each sip sets the stage for you wanting another.

This is tremendously stinky on the nose, downright blue cheesy at first with intense aromas of white truffles and canned corn. With air, fruit tones emerge and this turns slightly nutty with the truffled corn fading into the background. Intensely rich on entry and sweet with a lot of canned corn right up front and noticeable truffle spiciness. There is good acidity here, and a touch of tannin, both helping to keep this massively rich wine from becoming too much. Lots of slightly exotic fruit on the palate, which is rich and weighty but still well defined. The finish is bright with a touch of citrus adding some freshness and a nice lingering spice tone and a finale of dried mango. This is a bit sweet for me, and disarming as well. It’s a wine that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. 91pts

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2006 Winter’s Hill Vineyard Golden Nectar 15%

I couldn’t find the details on this wine, but it’s beautiful. A complex, drier wine that does have quite a bit of alcohol but in small quantities this was just delicious. A wine that can easily handle a first course, say something foie gras-ish.

This is almost angry-smelling with mineral and almond shell notes greeting the nose. With air, this turns almost weedy with wildflowers over bitter citrus zests topped with hints of sage and white pepper. Only modestly sweet with good balancing acidity, this offers up a lovely array of flavors that range from dried citrus zest to light honey, wood spice, candied nuts and a nice note of bitter apple on the finale. Well balanced and a wine that can easily be pared with savory dishes. Very fine and complex. 92pts

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1993 Chateau Pajzos Esszencia 4.5%

Tokaji Essenzia is one of the world’s truly exceptional wines. The fact that this is labeled as Esszencia calls into question what exactly it is, but no matter what this is, it is delicious. It marries huge acids with incredibly sweet intense fruit to produce a flavor explosion in your mouth. Yes, it’s expensive, but at least you don’t need much of it!

Warm and deep-smelling with molasses and hint framing the nutmeg and all-spice toned dried pear, apricot and peach fruit with a light nori top note.  Thick yet vibrant in the mouth with rich, honeyed flavors of pear, peach, kiwi and quince. There’s a nice toasty, malty note here as well.  This is super sweet, with huge acids lending the fruit a real freshness but the sugar wins out on the treacle- and caramel-laced finish. The finish goes on and on. A real treat to taste. 96pts

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7 Sweet Dessert Wines

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  • Snooth User: ssigaud
    299760 23

    Gregory - great article yet I was surprised not to see Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise mentioned. I know I am biased... but I think it belongs! What say you?

    Dec 22, 2010 at 12:19 PM

  • I was surprised not to see Electra or Red Electra by Quady Winery on the list as it is a delicately fruity and seductively sweet dessert wine. Although my favorite didn't make the cut, I think your suggestions are well worth a try. Thanks for posting!

    Dec 22, 2010 at 1:41 PM

  • Snooth User: cbevacqua
    329799 1

    Gregory, where are the Chilean dessert wines? :) Will try your suggestions. Happy holidays.

    Dec 22, 2010 at 3:32 PM

  • Snooth User: fbvintage
    35159 180

    I don't like this article. Do you have some problem with port wine ? Port wine is the best, you can say there other options, but don't put any port wine in yours examples, is note very elegant.

    Dec 22, 2010 at 3:37 PM

  • Snooth User: mikejapan
    545426 14

    What about the wine of kings; Tokaji?

    Dec 22, 2010 at 4:59 PM

  • Where are the Ice Wines?

    Dec 22, 2010 at 5:43 PM

  • Snooth User: spossum
    520172 3

    Since it seems like most people are surprised that their favorite dessert wines didn't make the list, I'll jump on the bandwagon (knowing full well that a comprehensive list would be quite ponderous): Moscato d'Asti - one of the fastest growing categories in the US.

    Dec 22, 2010 at 5:54 PM

  • Wish you Merry x-mas Gregory and to all how works wis you in Snooth, Nelli

    Dec 22, 2010 at 5:58 PM

  • Great article. Just wondering if you're had a chance to try the Yalumba range of botrytised viogniers?

    Had the Yalumba hand-picked Botrytis Viognier 2007 recently and it was delicious and very aromatic.

    Best wishes for Xmas and Happy New Year. Merrill

    Dec 22, 2010 at 6:40 PM

  • Snooth User: Rollonose
    183775 4

    I would reccomend Inniskillin Vidal Icewine. I am biased as I manage the winery, however it is known as one of the best dessert wines in over 70 countries.

    Dec 22, 2010 at 8:02 PM

  • another great choice would be gratta's dry creek zinfandel dessert wine...a real san francisco treat made locally!

    Dec 22, 2010 at 8:32 PM

  • Snooth User: tonymoir
    415427 41

    Always difficult when you limit your selection to seven wines - Sauternes, no Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, no port, no liqueur muscat....!

    Dec 23, 2010 at 5:45 AM

  • Snooth User: pazdar
    Hand of Snooth
    95917 5

    Those are classics but you missed some of the great new dessert wines such as Chocolata Amor from the Pazdar Winery.

    Dec 23, 2010 at 8:47 AM

  • Snooth User: stormesixx
    293113 20

    What, no eiswein? You can't leave off cabernet franc icewine. It's da bomb!

    Dec 23, 2010 at 9:54 AM

  • Snooth User: MikeWaters
    684400 16

    I agree that the absence of Beaumes de Venise is strange. One of the world's greatest dessert wines, and not priced to break the bank. Also, Monbazillac is a good one.

    Dec 23, 2010 at 1:10 PM

  • I know there is a strong bias against fruit-based wines, but if you get a chance, try blueberry or raspberry. blueberry tastes like a sweet merlot and raspberry is like cassis.

    Dec 23, 2010 at 1:58 PM

  • What--no Madeira; great substitute for port with rich chocolate desserts, Pecan tarts, etc.--Best yet, you do not have to finish the bottle; it will last for months after opened

    Bruce Smith, Wine Educatorl

    Dec 24, 2010 at 10:44 AM

  • Snooth User: escabar
    219686 12

    A wine that you can actually keep for awhile after opening? I am intrigued!

    Dec 28, 2010 at 10:51 AM

  • Snooth User: ocozzie
    127922 5

    The best dessert wine we have had recently is the Pellegrino 2008 Passito de Pantelleria. Refreshing, not too sweet. Highly recommended!

    Dec 30, 2010 at 6:15 PM

  • Snooth User: gloriaz
    309864 50

    I'm surprised no mention of ice wines from niagara/st. cathrine's (canada). I enjoy vidal (niagara peninsula), kittling ridge(grimsby, ontario) among others anytime of the year....

    Jan 13, 2011 at 3:51 PM

  • Snooth User: April Wine
    1386118 30

    to answer a few questions from fellow posters above:

    There's a 2012 Gewurztraminer Icewine from an Ontario boutique estate winery in Niagara operated by 6th & 7th generation vintners (King's Court Estate Winery)

    Oct 23, 2013 at 7:48 PM

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