Getting to know dessert wines from Australia to Italy

From Australia’s treacly ‘stickies’ to the light, frothy asti of Italy, dessert wines are as distinct as the countries that produce them.

Friday, December 13, 2019,
By Fiona Beckett
Hunter Valley in New South Wales, one of Australia's major wine regions.
Hunter Valley in New South Wales, one of Australia's major wine regions.
Photograph by Getty

If asked to name the country most renowned for dessert wines, my guess is that the majority of people would answer France — and if pushed to name a specific wine, sauternes. But the truth is, practically every country that makes wine makes sweet ones, too.

The variety is astonishing, ranging from the light, frothy, low-alcohol sparkling wines of Piedmont in northwest Italy (asti and, more interestingly, moscato d’asti) to the fabled ‘stickies’ of the Rutherglen region of Australia, which taste like liquid treacle toffee.

Most dessert wines are made from white grapes — the most commonly used being chenin blanc (in the Loire and South Africa), semillon (Bordeaux and Australia), muscat (throughout the southern Med) and riesling (Germany, Alsace and Austria). However, there are also red versions — most notably, port.

They’re made in several different ways, too. In areas where there’s a lot of moisture, such as Bordeaux and the Neusiedlersee region of Austria, vines are prone to botrytis — or ‘noble rot’, as it’s more romantically known. This fungus — typically occurring when misty mornings are followed by sunny afternoons — shrivels the grapes to a luscious sweetness. In other cases, the fruit may be laid out to dry on straw mats (such as Rustenberg Straw Wine, available from Waitrose) or left to shrivel — or in some cases freeze — on the vine (Canada has become a great source of these ice wines). 

Most of these methods severely reduce the amount of juice that can be squeezed from the grapes, which accounts for the high prices these wines usually command. However, others, such as Banyuls, Maury and other French vins doux naturels, are fortified like port and sweet sherry and aged in oak casks, losing less juice in the process. 

When it comes to choosing a dessert wine, the first thing to look for, obviously, is the label. ‘Late harvest’, ‘vendange tardive’, ‘dolce’, ‘dulce’ and ‘doux’ are all indications of sweetness. Look out also for the German and Austrian classification system of sweetness (in ascending order): auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein. 

Alcohol content and colour are also good steers. Paler wines tend to be fresher and lower in alcohol; riesling and late harvest sauvignons and semillons, for example, are both summery, pairing well with creamy desserts and fruit tarts. Conversely, more deeply coloured amber and reddish-bronze wines such as moscatels and vin santo are richer and more warming. These are better for winter drinking, sipping by the fire with rich fruit cake or cheese.

The lighter wines need to be served well chilled, and the darker ones slightly warmer. You don’t even really need the dessert.

Five to try

Portugal: Adega de Pegões Moscatel de Setúbal

Redolent of orange flower water, dried apricots and mixed peel, this wine would pair well with a light and fruity Christmas pudding or a Portuguese custard tart. £9.95 for 750ml, The Wine Society

Australia: Margan Botrytis Semillon 2014
From New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, this lush, peach- and pineapple-scented dessert wine is Australia’s take on sauternes. Perfect with a pavlova. £11.90 for 375ml, Tanners Wine Merchants.

Greece: Douloufakis Helios Sweet Wine 2005 
Wickedly sweet, treacly and raisiny, this Cretan red has been aged for 11 years in barrel. Like a less alcoholic tawny port. Perfect for a cheeseboard or with chocolate. £26 for 500ml, Maltby & Greek

Hungary: Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú 2013
Tokaji, or tokay, is one of the world’s most celebrated dessert wines, and Hungary’s ‘wine of kings’. Rich, orangey and surprisingly good with stilton. £29.99 for 500ml, Majestic Wines.

UK: Denbies Noble Harvest 2016 
Britain is relatively new to the world of sweet wine-making, but this light, peachy white proves this country is a serious contender. Perfect with a custard tart. £19.99 for 375ml from Waitrose Cellar

Published in Issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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