How to Serve Dessert Wine: To Chill, or Not to Chill?

There’s nothing quite like finishing off a terrific meal with a glass of your favorite dessert wine. Whether you love satin-smooth Port wine, or prefer a glass of golden brilliance from Sauternes, there’s always room for a liquid dessert.

Read on to learn best practices for serving and storing dessert wines (known as sticky wines in some countries) for the best experience possible.

Different Types of Dessert Wines

dessert wine serving glass

Late Harvest Wine & Noble Rot Wine

Grapes that are left on the vine to ripen longer, many times resulting in Botrytis aka ‘Noble Rot’ grapes

Grapes with Botrytis have been used for many decades, resulting in unforgettable sweet wines. Botrytis Cinerea, also known as ‘Noble Rot’, is a fungus that causes the grapes to shrivel and decay, concentrating the sugar levels.

Noble Rot wines also tend to bring out more honey, caramel, and dried fruit characteristics. Higher levels of a special aroma compound called phenylacetaldehyde cause these notes to stand out.

Late Harvest wines can also be made without the effect of Botrytis, with the grapes naturally dehydrating on the vine.

grapes dehydrating on the vine

Common grapes for Late Harvest Wines:

  • Riesling
  • Semillon
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Muscat
  • Gewurtztraminer

Ice Wine (Eiswein)

Wine made from grapes frozen on the vine

Canada is this wine style’s top producer. Ice Wine is naturally sweet. This results from its winemaking process. Eiswein is unique. It starts with grapes picked while still frozen solid. Pressing the frozen grapes extracts only the sweetest juices, while the water in the grapes stays frozen. 

This results in a smaller amount of a more concentrated, much sweeter wine. White Ice Wine retains a freshness on the palate that is beautiful. Go for this wine to experience its unique display of gorgeous aromas including mango, peach, apricot, and other stone fruits.

Passito

Passito is made from grapes that are fully dried out on straw mats 

Named Italy’s Raisin Wine, this sweet red wine making method will leave you wanting more with each sip. 

The first step in Passito wine making is allowing the grapes to dry out on the vine. Once dried, wine makers lay the grapes on straw mats or hang them from the ceiling. Through this process, these grapes transform into the sweetest raisins. Later, these raisins will be pressed and made into a dessert wine.

Recioto is famous dessert wine that comes from Passito. As you’d expect, this wine is velvety and sweet, with focused flavors of prune and raisin.

Fortified Wines

Fortified wines contain a distilled spirit 

Port wine is one of the most well-known fortified red wines. Best practices for serving Port are post-meal scenarios (and often with a cigar). 

This wine hails from the Douro Valley of Portugal. Port offers rich flavors and a silky texture. The alcohol content of Port wines range between 16-20%. Port varieties are truly unique experiences from one to the next.

  • Ruby Ports display characteristics such as fresh raspberries, black cherries, red fruits, and chocolate. Less complex than other Ports, Ruby Ports are not intended to be aged as long as Tawny Ports, per se. These Ports can only have a maximum of three years in the barrel to maintain their brilliant color, youth, and freshness. 
  • Tawny Ports require a 7-year minimum in wooden barrels before bottling. Tawny ports flaunt beautiful aromas and flavors. Most notably, Tawnys are lovely delights of nut, caramel, dried fruit, and warm spice aromas (such as cinnamon and clove). Tawny has a warm caramel hue, matching its flavor profile. The color tends to deepen with time, especially if left to age longer.
  • Vintage Ports are made from single, exceptional vintages. These Ports spend no more than two and a half years in the barrel before bottling. Vintage Ports are best when aged another 10-30 years in the bottle before being considered a proper drinking age. These Ports are a great investment, as they only get better with age (if you’re patient enough!).

What about Madeira?

Madeira is produced on a small Portuguese island of the same name. Sweet Madeira is a classic after-dinner drink, although it can be made in a dry style as well. Notes of walnut, candied orange peel, caramel, and hazelnut will dance on your palate, leaving a long and lingering finish.

These brilliant characteristics come from the unique winemaking process, which involves oxidizing the Madeira through heat and aging.

What Temperature Should Dessert Wine be Served at?

White dessert wines are best served chilled, between 43-46°F (6-8°C), with the exception of Madeira.

Madeira is best served at the same temperature as red dessert wines. This is because Madeira has a more complex flavor profile than other white dessert wines. Serving cold Madeira masks those flavors and is not preferred.

Best served slightly chilled, red wines belong between 46-53°F (8-12°C). Red wine has more to offer than white wine when it comes to texture, so we want to make sure we don’t miss out on that!

A good rule of thumb to go by is by the complexity of your wine. If it has straight-forward, fruit driven flavors similar to those in an ice wine, you’d want to serve that slightly more chilled. Conversely, serve a 20 year old Vintage Port (or other wines with a lot more aromatic compounds) less chilled.

Why are Dessert Wine Served Cooler Than Other Wines?

One reason dessert wines are preferred cooler is that they are almost always higher in alcohol than dry wines. Serving them at a lower temperature helps to mute the alcohol. This helps to pick up the key flavors and aromas that it has to offer.

Another reason to serve your dessert wines a bit more chilled is due the obvious sugar levels in the wine. The warmer your wine is, the more that the sugar will saturate your palate. It will be harder to detect the flavors of the wine if the only thing you’re tasting is sweetness.

How To Serve Dessert Wine

wine glass selection

What is the Ideal Dessert Wine Glass Size?

Sipping dessert wines slowly and thoughtfully (whether by themselves or with the food of your choice) is the best experience. In a matter of minutes, a dessert wine can transform into many different stages. Aerating, or swirling your glass often helps. Unless your wine contains bubbles, you cannot swirl it too much. So…swirl your heart out!

The Tulip Glass

A Tulip Glass is the best glass from which to enjoy dessert wine. This small, unique shaped glass will focus all of those lovely aromas where they’re supposed to go…to your nose. Drinking from this glass will also direct the wine towards the center of your palate, instead of coating your entire mouth with ultimately sweet wine.

The Balloon Glass

Serving dessert wines in bigger, rounder glasses such as a Balloon Glass will dilute the aromas with too much air. We want everything but disappointment when sniffing our wines!

The correct wine glass makes a world of a difference, believe me. So, look for something other than a balloon glass for your dessert wine.

To Decant or Not to Decant? That is the Question.

Decanting dessert wine is not the most common practice, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you’re looking to enjoy an older Noble Rot wine from Tokaj, for example, it would definitely assist to open up the aromatic expression.

The only thing you may want to consider before opting for a decanter, is if you will be finishing the whole bottle in one sitting. Hey, no judgment here. It is difficult to drink a whole bottle of sweet, syrupy goodness though!

Storing Your Dessert Wines

store wine bottles on their side

In order for your wines to show you their most stunning profile later, they must be taken proper care of in the meantime. Like many wines, dessert wines should be stored laying down. A dark, cool place with no to little vibration is optimal.

The optimum storage temperature for dessert wine is between 50-55°F. They can easily be stored alongside your other wines, as this is an ideal temperature for dry wines as well.

Many, if not most dessert wines are great for long term aging. There is a big variance in how long a wine can age to reach its peak. It could be 4 years, or 40 years!

This all depends on the quality of the vintage. A great way to check exactly how long your wine should age before enjoying it is by searching it up on Vivino.com. A truly impressive site for all wine lovers.

How About the Fridge?

If you’re planning on drinking your bottle of dessert wine within a month, the refrigerator will do just fine for storage. However, don’t store it in the refrigerator long term. As a rule, wine ages more gracefully in less cold environments.

Refrigerators keep food from spoiling by reducing moisture within their inclosed air environment. Therefore, storing your wine within the fridge could possibly cause the cork to dry out, which would taint the wine.

Opened Bottles of Dessert Wine

One of the many great virtues of dessert wines is that they do not go bad just a few days after opening. The high sugar levels act as sort of a preservative, keeping the wine fresh for a good 2 4 weeks.

A few of my Favorites…

man with glass of dessert wine and a cigar

When it comes to dessert wines, there are many different reasons why wine drinkers all over the globe love them. Whether it’s to accompany your favorite cigar, or that you just have an irresistible sweet tooth, dessert wines will surely be there to heighten your enjoyment.

Cheers!

Here are a few of my favorite dessert wines:

  • Klein Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ (Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Ata Rangi ‘Kahu Riesling’ (Martinborough, New Zealand)
  • Chateau Suiduiraut ‘Premier Cru Classe’ (Sauternes, France)
  • Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port (Douro Valley, Portugal)