April 16, 2024

Getting Your Just Desserts

The holiday season and its feasts are almost here. While an entire industry exists to help you pair your meals with an array of wines, one of the often overlooked parts of the meal is the digestif. I’d like to introduce you to some classic dessert wines, fortified wines, and some liqueurs that are not only exceptional beverages in their own right, but are the perfect end to any meal.


Port wine is probably the easiest to get your hands on. Several countries make a fortified style wine that generically is called port, but I personally am a snob in this regard and suggest you go with the authentic stuff from the country of Portugal. It comes in three basic forms: white ports, ruby ports, and tawny ports. White port is mostly an aperitif and its production is quite small. Ruby ports are a large group and include styles such as Late Bottled Vintage Port and Vintage Port. Tawny ports are the extended aged wines that can see decades in barrel.

Ports in general are fairly sweet and are very high in alcohol, ranging typically from 18%-20% due to the addition of grape spirits during fermentation. They pair exceptionally well with chocolates, strong cheeses, and nuts. Some common producers are Taylor Fladgate, Dow’s, Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Warre’s, and Ramos Pinto.


Next, look for Sauternes wines. Sauternes is actually a region of France, much like Champagne. Most countries outside of France refer to similar styled wines as botrytized wines, as the grapes are infected by a mold called botrytis cinerea. It causes the wines to be thick and viscous with a characteristic honey flavor. Production is usually quite limited, and these wines can be rather expensive, but are well worth the splurge.

Sauternes pair wonderfully with fruit based desserts, or can stand on their own as dessert itself. Chateau d’Yquem is the gold standard for Sauternes. Dolce is a great domestic example of this style.


Icewine hails originally from Germany. The Niagara region of Canada has developed quite a reputation for them, as well. The grapes for this wine are allowed to hang on the vine until very late in the season, becoming exceptionally ripe. Eventually the weather changes and the grapes literally become encased in ice during a freeze. These frozen grapes are pressed and the resulting juice is fermented into Icewine. Production is very limited and these wines are difficult to make, which is reflected in the cost. The labor is well worth the experience, though. German Icewines can be difficult to secure, but Canadian names such as Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs can be found at better markets. Pair Icewine with sweet fruit desserts as well, particularly apricots.


The king of wines and the wine of kings is what Hungarian Tokaji is often referred to. This wine is produced by taking botrytized grapes that are mashed into a paste. Grape must is then added to the paste, allowed to macerate for a few days, then drawn off for fermentation. Sweetness levels are determined by the must to paste ratio, defined by a unit called puttonyos. Tokaji is renowned for its balance of sweetness and acidity, despite being a dessert style wine. Tokaji is often served alone, but will pair well with sweet fruit desserts. These wines can be a challenge to find, but upscale markets and wine shops should have one or two. The Royal Tokaji Wine Company is probably the most common name.

Other Notable Mentions

Some additional dessert wines to look for are the baked fortified wines of Madeira, German Trockenbeerenauslese, Spanish PX Sherries, the Marsala wines of Sicily, and a range of late harvest and muscat wines produced around the world.

I also want to quickly mention the many bittersweet liqueurs produced predominately in Eastern Europe and Italy. These are made by infusing herbs, spices, and other traditional health remedies into low alcohol base spirits. All are proprietary blends and have a large range of flavors. Names like Jägermeister, Frangelico, and Campari are well known, but many others are available.

One product I want to mention, as I know one of the two women who guard the recipe, is Unicum from Hungary. I guarantee it’s one of the most memorable taste experiences you will ever have.

So, when it comes to enjoying a great meal, don’t forget to end with a treat in the form of a digestif. As always, treat yourself responsibly.


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