Valentine’s Day is just a few days away, and while we may be single ladies in NYC, that doesn’t mean we don’t have romance on our minds! But for us, romance isn’t necessarily about candlelight dinners and roses (although we’ll happily accept both). Instead, it’s all about the perfect wine. So on a day dedicated to love and sweets of all kinds, we couldn’t wait to share our love of dessert wine with you!
If you’ve never had dessert wine, trust us when we tell you that it can be magical. When paired with the right dessert, it adds a finishing touch to a meal in a way that no other wine can. It’s that special detail that can turn an ordinary Valentine’s Day menu into an extraordinary one!
Dessert Wine Styles
You’ve probably noticed that dessert wines tend to be more expensive than your average glass of wine. That’s because they’re time-consuming to make and often require sophisticated vinification techniques to produce. They come in a variety of styles, flavors and price points, which all depend on how they’re made. While this list is by no means exhaustive, most dessert wines fall into one of the following categories:
- Sparkling: Dessert-style sparkling wines can be red, white or rosé, semi-sweet or sweet. There are different sugar levels in sparkling wines and Champagne, but semi-sweet styles have about 32-50 grams of sugar/liter and sweet styles have about 50+ grams of sugar/liter. Look for terms on the wine label such as moelleux, demi-sec, doux, amabile, dolce, or dulce to indicate that the wine is sweet
- Straw Wine / Passito: These wines are made from grapes that have been semi-dried, usually by laying them on straw mats or hanging them from racks. During this drying process, the grapes begin to raisinate, which concentrates their sugars and basically turns their juice into a thick, sweet syrup before pressing. The longer they dry, the sweeter the syrup will be. Although dry wines can be made in this style, the majority of straw wines are vinified sweet.
- Late Harvest: Late harvest wines are made from grapes that have been left on the vine until they reach their maximum level of ripeness. Depending on the style of the wine, they can even be left on the vine long enough to naturally dehydrate. The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the more the sugars concentrate.
- Botrytized: Botrytized wines are those made with grapes affected by a rot called botrytis, or “noble rot,” which is actually considered a good thing in viticulture. Botrytis only occurs under specific climate conditions that cannot be controlled; if the conditions aren’t right, noble rot doesn’t occur. When botrytis does occur, it attacks the grapes and dehydrates them, which in turn concentrates their sugars. However, botrytis doesn’t attack grape clusters evenly, so the grapes must be handpicked one by one, often requiring multiple sweeps through the vineyard over a period of days or weeks, to ensure that only those grapes infected with botrytis are harvested. Because of the painstaking harvesting technique and lack of control over Mother Nature, well-made botrytized wines are expensive and limited in production.
- Vins Doux Naturel (“VDN”): These wines start off like dry wines, but during vinification a neutral grape spirit is added to stop fermentation before all the sugars are converted to alcohol. The resulting wine is sweet due to the residual sugar that is left after fermentation is stopped.
- Fortified: Fortified wines are wines in which Brandy (most common) or another neutral spirit is added, but unlike VDNs, the addition of the spirit can occur during or after fermentation. When added during fermentation the resulting wines are usually sweet; when added after, the resulting wines are usually dry. Fortified wines are higher in alcohol content and tend to have a longer shelf life after they are open.
- Ice Wine (“Eiswein”): Traditional ice wines are made from grapes that are frozen while still on the vine, hand-harvested (usually in the middle of the night) and then pressed while frozen. Because only the water in the grapes freezes and not the sugars, when the grapes are pressed, the frozen ice separates from the grapes and is removed, leaving behind a super concentrated juice. These wines are commonly produced in cold climate areas like Germany and Canada, and because harvesting is so difficult and yields are so low, they are rare and very expensive.
We know that there are a lot of dessert wines out there to choose from, so to get some sweet with sweet pairing suggestions we spoke to two of our favorite NYC wine experts: Yannick Benjamin, Sommelier at The University Club and lead lecturer at Le Du’s Wines; and Jennifer Leopold, Assistant Sommelier at Casa Mono, a Michelin-starred, Mario Batali-owned restaurant specializing in Spanish wines. Here are their amazing wine recommendations and decadent dessert pairings to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company Blue-Red Label Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos
Region: Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary
Grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu & Yellow Muscat
Average price: $61
Yannick’s pairing notes: “This wine has the perfect harmony and elegance to go with desserts that contain baked apple, dried fruits, candied orange, apricot, and honey flavors. My ideal dessert to pair with the Royal Tokaji is the Tarte Tatin, which is an upside-down tart in which the apples are caramelized in butter and sugar before the tart is baked.”
2012 Domaine Renardat-Fâche Bugey Cerdon Rosé
Region: Savoie, France
Grapes: Gamay & Poulsard
Average price: $21
Yannick’s pairing notes: “At the estate of Domaine Renardat-Fâche, they practice a technique called ‘ancestral method’ where the fermentation process continues within the bottle. Due to this technique, this wine has a real freshness and grapiness to it and a good amount of bubbles. It has lots of red fruit aromas such as wild strawberry and crushed raspberries, which makes it a great pairing for red fruit-based desserts. I suggest a very simple, but flavorful, dessert such as a Chiffon Cake with Strawberries and Cream. The red fruit aromas in the wine will go well with the flavors