Red Dessert Wines

Reviews of port and late harvest wine


The holidays are one of the few times in the year when folks dig into dessert wines, and that’s a shame. There are many arguments for this hesitancy: the cost, the sheer volume of wine, the alcohol! All of them are valid enough, but considering that most dessert wines come in half bottles and that many last quite well for a week on the counter, I’m thinking that more people should be taking a tipple year round. But that’s not the point today.

Today, let’s talk and taste some of the main categories of red dessert wines, port and late harvest wines. The two styles are quite different from each other. To begin with, there is port, which technically only comes from Portugal. Many port-style wines from around the globe are made, and many are quite delicious.

Late harvest wines, on the other hand, are made around the world and with almost every grape imaginable. The main distinction one can make about late harvest wines is that the grapes are dried on the vine, as opposed to first being harvested and laid out either in the sun or on mats and racks. This tends to lend the late harvest style wines an added advantage in ripeness, though it often comes at the price of lower acidity in the finished wines. Learn more about both styles inside!

Photo courtesy liljc716 via Flickr/CC


Port is perhaps the worlds most famous dessert wine. The name refers to the city of Opporto, home to many port lodges and the heart of the Porto wine industry. The city is strategically located at the mouth of the Douro River, which served as the highway for the port industry for centuries. You see, while Porto wines are blended and matured at the lodges in Opporto, they are produced further upriver, along the terraced vineyards that line the Douro.

Port wine is a fortified wine. By that I mean that it is produced as if it were to become a regular dry wine. Here, the fermentation is stopped when the winemaker feels the sugar level is right, upon which neutral grape spirits are added to the fermenting must. This alcohol, which typically brings the wine to a total alcohol of between 19 and 20% by volume, kills off the active yeast cells that had been converting sugar to alcohol.

Port wine combines that character of a young table wine with significant added alcohol. This accounts for the need to age port to allow for better integration of the alcohol and softening of the tannins.

Photo courtesy draculina_ak via Flickr/CC

Reserve Port

Reserve ports are young ports, aged in barrel and bottle and destined for early release. They are generally made in a fruitier style, as a rough approximation of more mature vintage ports, though their youth often leaves them with some tannin to burn. The Grahams Six Grapes is a rather serious reserve port.

NV Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto 19.5% $13

Nicely layered nose of violet pastille, pencil lead, fennel seed, camphor and black currant fruit. This is fairly sweet in the mouth, but at the same time, is drying from wood with lots of tannins and wood spice. Downright cedary actually. This blends bold baking spice tones with a deep base of dried fruits in a very focused style. Definitely youthful and intense, this has complexity yet lacks a bit of integration at this point. 88pts

Buy this wine at Sherry-Lehmann!

Tawny Port

Tawny port is generally identified by the age of the port on the labels. Here’s a little secret, that’s not really the age of the port, which is a blend of many vintages. Instead, that is an indication of how old the port is supposed to taste! Yes, it is weird, but it’s handy. I like 10-year-old tawnies with their blend of nuts, spice and red fruits. This Churchill’s has a lovely fruitcake quality that makes it perfect for the holidays!

Churchill’s 10 Years Old Tawny Port 19.5%

Classic tawny nose, with strong nutty tones, an edge of salinity and hints of prosciutto and cinnamon over dried red fruits. This is sweet, almost a little candied, but so well balanced that it glides across the palate. The tannins are well softened, just barely adding their punch to the mid-palate. Shows coffee tones, a light cherry cream fruitiness and aromatic spice nuances that drive the sweet, fruitcake toned finish. Spicy and lush. 89pts

Port-styled Wine

While port is from Portugal, there is no shortage of port-styled wines in the world. I’ve had excellent examples from Australia, California and South Africa, where today’s outlier comes from. Definitely a different take on the port style, it’s worth tasting the full range on offer to gain perspective into what makes true port wine so unique.

2008 Muratie Cape Vintage 19.5%

Rather beefy on the nose, with notes of mushroom, licorice, sage and mint accenting the cherry cordial fruit that shows nice mace and cinnamon top notes. This is sweet and soft in the mouth, with a lovely balance of intense, licorice-tinged black cherry liqueur, dried strawberries and a soft, mouth-filling texture. There’s some nice chocolate that pops on the back end, and the finish is gently spicy if a bit short. Complex and ready, this is dark and sleek. 89pts

Late Harvest wines

As I mentioned earlier, late harvest wines are most easily confused with wines that undergo drying after harvest. The biggest difference between the two is the state of maturity the grapes achieve.

With late harvest wines, the grapes go through their full growth cycle and then some, becoming super sweet but at the same time losing some of their acid as they get super mature. Dried grapes, such as those that go into Amarone, are picked at various stages of maturity. Most often they are picked when they are just past ripe, fixing the ratio of sugar and acid in the grapes even as they dry and thus fixing the ratio within the wine.

So why are we talking about late harvest wines then? Because ZInfandel is ideally suited to produce a late harvest wine. How so? Zin is one of the few grapes that ripens totally unevenly. Cluster at harvest will often have both raisins and green berries showing. Leave them on the vine and you get more raisins and fewer green berries. Those green berries are so far behind the bulk of the fruit on the cluster that even at a late harvest stage they supply superb acidity to the rich sweetness a late harvest Zin is capable of!

Photo courtesy thegourmetro via Flickr/CC

2008 Harvest Moon Late harvest Estate Zinfandel Russian River Valley 13%

This Harvest Moon Zin is decidedly on the lighter, red-fruited side of things. Lovely and bright, it’s an easy to drink, easy to enjoy example.

Earthy and leathery on the nose, with spicy, meaty dried fruit aromas and a blast of VA. Relatively sweet on entry, this quickly pulls itself together with bright acidity and soft tannins allowing the wild raspberry fruit framed with lemon and baking spices to pop on the palate. The finish shows a bit of wild cherry and some nice spice, ending on a rather dry, if modestly long note. 87pts

Find out more!

2008 Fritz Late Harvest Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 16%

The Fritz, on the other hand, is a dark, powerful, muscular style of late harvest Zin. It can do with a few years in the cellar, but it’s already well balanced and complex enough to enjoy tonight!

Chocolate, tobacco, dates and tree bark greet the nose with a spicy top note from both fruit and wood. This is decidedly sweet on the palate and filled with truffle, date, fig and dried prune flavors. There are some noticeable tannins and a layer of wood spice here adding complexity. This is rich and powerful, in a style that could take some age nicely, but it already shows fine integration. Reveals bright, plummy fruit tones on the very long, wood spiced finish. 91pts

Find out more!

The Best of Both Worlds

If port is sometimes too much for you, but the dried fruit of late harvest wines leaves you flat, consider something like this off-the-wall fortified wine from Hawk and Horse Vineyards. Lake County Cabernet fortified with grape spirits to only 16% alcohol, this is a dynamite bottle of wine. Not inexpensive, but damn is it good!

2006 Hawk and Horse Vineyards Latigo Dessert wine, Red Hills lake Co. CA 16% $45

Made with Cabernet Sauvignon

This is lovely, intense and rich on the nose, with notes of burnt sugar, dried herbs, wood spice, vanilla and date and dried plum fruit. Sweet on entry but not terribly heavy, this is open and broad on the palate and filled with red fruit. Strawberry, cherry and a touch of plum glide across the palate topped with gentle wood spice and toasted marshmallow notes. Lots of vanilla drives the wine through the long, red fruited, plum and caramel laden finish. Dangerously easy to drink and so well integrated. This is very aromatic on the finish, with licorice and strawberry popping out with air. I like! 92pts

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  • There are some lovely red wines in Europe dating back to Roman times like Aleatico de Puglia, and weird wines like PANTELLERIA from a volcanic island near Italy

    Banyuls, Collioure and Maury, from the Catalan corner of France are great solutions to the chocolate pudding dilemna but appear as chilled aperitifs in their region.

    A cute little strawberry-tasting wine of about 5% is grown in Piedmont,called Birbet. We had one from Malvira that survived many years of neglect under the sink and yet tasted lovely after chilling, and disappeared in two sessions.

    I would say be brave and take the plunge on a bottle if you see such things in shops run by wine enthusiastsin the US of A.

    Dec 15, 2011 at 5:55 AM

  • nice one

    Sep 24, 2013 at 9:30 AM

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