How to: Dessert Wines

By Joseph Keats

How to: Dessert Wines
Confused by dessert wines? Don't be, our expert helps you decipher the world of wine and food matching for a sweeter palate.

Dessert wines are invariably the wines that most frequently get purchased, and then NOT drunk for long periods of time. Not because the typical wine drinker wants to cellar them to develop the wine, but because they can often fall into the too hard basket when it comes to finding the right time to drink them! Let’s have a look at a few styles, and some guidelines for when and how to enjoy them.

First up, remember that your taste buds are your alone, so don’t be afraid to experiment. You may find a combination that tickles you in just the right way, while your partner thinks you’re mad. Each to their own! These wines are all typically to be served in smaller glasses – how often you refill that glass is also entirely up to you. Happy hunting…..


A classic dessert style, made famous by the Sauternes wines from around Bordeaux. Most frequently made from Semillon, (Petersons being particularly noted for their superb offering) with the occasional touch of Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadelle, these wines are super sweet, but the best examples have an underlying acidity to balance this. Riesling is often also used, and the Germans were developing a similar style to the French at around the same time.

The Botrytis fungus (yes, that’s right – also known as Noble Rot) will affect any grape variety given the right conditions. And winemakers have experimented with some spectacular results, Allandale’s Viognier being a great example of this and it picked up the trophy for Best Dessert Wine at the Australian and New Zealand Boutique Winemakers show.

The fungus lives on the grape, and draws water out of the berry, concentrating the flavours and sugars into the small amount of remaining liquid. Initially, the use of ‘rotted’ grapes was kept secret, and early fans of Sauternes wines include Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

When and how to enjoy

It’s a rich wine, so it needs rich food. Foie gras and blue cheese are both classic pairings, and cheese cake can work well too. Either using a lemon cheesecake for zest and to contrast with the sweetness, or maybe passionfruit flavours to complement some of the natural fruit flavours found in the wine. Most fruit based desserts will be a good match, such as poached fruits or apple tart.

Less frequent in Australasia, and a little more interesting, is the pairing of these wines with savoury dishes such as salted fish, or poultry, particularly if it is served with some kind of fruit, for example orange or quince.

Good botrytis will cellar happily for decades, getting darker in colour, and more complex in flavour, developing some nutty notes. Best served around 10 degrees or so, maybe a little warmer for older wines.

Late Harvest Wines

Fairly self-explanatory here – the fruit is harvested later than normal. As the fruit dehydrates, or starts to slowly turn into raisins, if you prefer to think of it that way, the sugars and flavours concentrate in much the same way as a Botrytis. Ice wines have a similar principle, but in their production the berries are crushed whilst frozen, holding a portion of the water content in ice crystals, effectively dehydrating the gape again.

Tallavera Grove and Foxeys Hangout both produce superb late harvest Pinot Gris, and Foxeys won a trophy for theirs at the International Sweet Wine Challenge in 2014. Pinot Gris often exhibits some pear notes, so any pear or apple dessert will go nicely with these, as will stone fruit, dairy, and steamed desserts. Serve chilled, as with a Botrytis.

Fortified Wines

Put simply, fortified wines have been made stronger – fortified – by the addition of spirit, usually brandy. Most are in the range of 16-22% alcohol. There are many variations, but the most familiar are Port, Muscat and Sherry. Many people consider these wines as not being dessert wines, but they can pair exceptionally well with desserts and cheeses. Drier variations, such as some sherries, can be enjoyed as an aperitif. Alternatively, and frequently, they may just be enjoyed after a meal without any accompanying food.


There are numerous styles of wine that include the use of the word Muscat, but typically as a fortified it will be referred to simply as ‘Muscat’ or sometimes ‘liqueur Muscat’, and be a dark brown in colour. Rutherglen in Victoria has outstanding conditions for the production of this wine, and Savannah Estate’s superb Muscat is sourced from this region. Raisin and caramel notes make it ideal for matching with desserts that feature these flavours, and like most fortifieds it is fantastic with cheeses, particularly harder cheeses. And with Christmas cake or fruit cake… perfection.


The use of this word is protected now, in much the same way the word Champagne is. Often referred to by its various styles such as Ruby or Tawny, or maybe simply ‘Fortified Shiraz’. It is usually made with red grapes, although there are examples made from white. The style originates from the Douro region of Portugal, and has been immensely popular with the English for centuries. It is often served as an aperitif, usually tawny or white ports, although any style may be used.

The huge diversity of Port styles means huge diversity of food matching potential. Ruby ports tend to be young and fresh, and berry driven wines. So a berry coulis dessert would pair well. McWilliams make a wide variety of excellent fortifieds, many of which have decades of aging. Aging of fortifieds occurs in oak barrels for many years, and the wines become more concentrated as water evaporates from the barrels.

Vintage port is often like a heavy, slightly sweet red wine, and is often drunk without food, or with cheeses. It will develop in the bottle, and should be consumed within a few days of opening, behaving much like a typical red wine. Non vintage styles tend to develop less in the bottle, and can be kept for longer periods after opening. Weeks, or even months if oxygen is removed and the wine is kept cool.

In Spain and Portugal, (Spain being home to Sherry, from Jerez) these fortified wines are often sipped alongside tapas, and are a popular afternoon tipple. White and tawny port may be served at the same temperature as whites, (10-15 deg) and heavier Ports at the same temperature as reds. (15-19 deg)



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