How Sweet It Is: Discovering the World’s Most Famous Dessert Wines

Human beings, as a whole, love sweet. Studies have shown that newborn babies, when given a choice, prefer sugar water over milk. We begin life with a sweet tooth, even while that bud is still locked inside the confines of our tiny gums. For most of us, the craving continues to haunt, delight, plague and pleasure us for the rest of our days.

Photo: Megan Mallen

There are bioanthropological reasons for our obsession with sugary stuff. Simply, sucrose gives us a rush that can help you run from a stampede of angry woolly mammoths, or to fend off a scary saber tooth tiger. While the world has changed and the prehistoric dangers have disappeared, our sensitivity to that hit of quick fuel has not.

Fermenting fruit juice has been one way of satisfying our ambrosial urges since time immemorial—or in the case of sweet wines, since around 800 BCE.

The very first recorded mention of dessert wine appears in the poem, “The Works and Days,” by the Greek poet Hesiod. In it, he describes the process for making a wine called Cypriot Manna—the name given to the straw wine from Cyprus we know today as Commanderia. 4,000 years later, the grapes are still dried on straw mats, just like the poet advised: “For days and nights ten expose them to the sun”. That way, the grapes dry until most of the water has evaporated, leaving only highly concentrated, super-sweet juice. The resulting wine is said to have toasted the Goddess Aphrodite, won the very first wine tasting competition in the 13th century, started wars, healed the sick, and inspired the current classification of wines by place of origin.

That is a powerful sugar rush, indeed.

It is also one of many. Just consider some of the most famous creations on the sweet side of planet wine.

Italy: Vin Santo

To hear people talk about this Italian straw wine, you would think it truly is some sort of blessed thing. But Vin Santo (literally “Saint’s Wine”), got its name sometime in the 14th Century, and the true etymology has been lost to the dust.

One of the prevailing stories—and probably the most likely—cites Vin Santo as the sweet wine preferred during Catholic and Greek Orthodox Mass. Another myth borrows from this, but adds an extra level, suggesting that a Sienese friar used the leftover wine from services to comfort and heal victims of Plague; miraculous recoveries were attributed to drinking the santo or “holy” wine. Some suggest that fermentation of Vin Santo was traditionally started around All Saint’s Day and bottling happened during the week of Easter.

Another legend goes back to 1349, during the Ecumenical Council of Florence, and offers two separate theories from one event: in one version, Basilios (John) Bessarion, a founder of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church, is said to have noted that the wine he was given—a local juice called Vin Pretto (“pure wine”) was similar to Xanthos, a wine from the Greek island of the same name. In the other, witnesses said he described the wine as yellow in color—or Xantho. Either Xanthos or Xantho, the Florentine locals seemed to have heard Cardinal Bessarion say Santo, and decided that holy sounded better than pure. In any case, the name stuck.

Vespaiola grapes hung to dry in northern Italy – photo: Fabio Ingross

Farmers all across Italy make their own versions of Vin Santo for home use, and there are several Italian appellations that can produce the wine legally. But the best and most traditional Vin Santo comes from Tuscany, and is generally made from a blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. Producers sometimes add Sangiovese to the mix, and this resulting rosé or ruby-colored blend is known as Occhio di Pernice or “eye of the partridge” (named for the less-than-romantic eye color the bird develops during its convulsions at death’s door).

When ripe and at peak acidity, the best, most unblemished fruit is picked and dried for three to six months in an airy room. Although traditionally the grapes were laid on straw mats, it is now more common to hang them from the rafters from hooks or string, or to arrange the clusters on dry canes or nets—all methods that are less susceptible to the advances of marauding vermin.

At the end of the drying period, the fruit is crushed and mixed with a yeast paste that traditionally contains madre or “mother”—a starter left over from prior vinifications. This formula is thought to boost a sluggish fermentation, weighed down by sky-high sugar concentrations. The must is then put in barrels made from oak, juniper, cherry or chestnut, and is set to age—completely undisturbed—in a warm room/attic called a vinsantaia, for anywhere from three to ten years. The resulting wine ranges in color from amber to neon orange. The best are viscous and have a creamy, nutty/toffee flavor, and are sweet but not cloying. When Vin Santo ferments dry—which is less common, but not rare – the product is similar to Fino Sherry.

As with all winemaking, results are never guaranteed. In the case of Vin Santo, when things go south, the farmer may find himself with an extraordinary barrel of vinegar. While perhaps not the perfect dunk for an after-dinner biscotti; the premium, wood-aged vinegar is rarely, in itself, a loss.

Hungary: Tokaji

While Commanderia and Vin Santo might make other ancient drinks seem like the new Coke, Tokaji certainly deserves an elder’s respect. The fermented Hungarian elixir has been around for several hundred years; the production area (Tokaj-Hegyalja) was granted UNESCO World Heritage Committee status in 2002. It is Europe’s oldest orange wine (meaning fermentation happens on the skins—like red wine, but using white grapes); and Tokaji was being made from Botrytis cinerea-affected fruit at least a century before Germany and France started making their own juice with “noble rot”-riddled berries.

Sweet Tokaji’s story probably begins during the Turkish invasions of the 16th Century. By the time it was safe for the area’s farmers to return to their crops, most of their fruit had shriveled on the vine. Abbott Maté Szepsi, a priest in charge of wine production at the Zssuzsanna Lorántfly estate, harvested and fermented the rotten grapes separately. For his bravery, he was rewarded with wine that was bursting with an apricot sweetness, but shone with crisp, bright, balancing acidity. Tokaji Aszú was born.

The invasions might have led to a happy discovery, but it’s the region’s geography that is responsible for the perfect growing conditions. Stetson Robbins, a sales manager with Blue Danube Wine Company, a company focused on wines from Eastern Europe, explains that the word Aszú’s original meaning “is believed to come from Old Armenian, and meant either grape or confluence—probably both—because the area is located at the confluence of two rivers,” the Tisza and Bodrog. The humidity from these rivers and their floodplains creates a mold-loving morning fog that settles over the vineyards. The hot, arid days dry the grapes and prevent the botrytis from turning into destructive gray rot. All of this occurs within part of a 400-volcano chain, whose mineral-rich soil absorbs, retains and reflects heat in the winter, and is protected from extreme temperature fluctuations by the Carpathian Mountains nearby. “The terroir is completely anomalous,” says Robbins. “It can’t be duplicated. People have tried.”

Whether sweet or dry (non-botrytisized), all of the wines from the region are called Tokaji, which is yet another of this area’s singular characteristics. In the case of Tokaji Aszú, levels of sweetness (puttonyos) range from three (six to nine percent residual sugar) to six (15-18 percent RS). But Robbins is quick to clarify that these levels aren’t a reflection of the wine’s quality: “three puttonyos isn’t less good than a six puttonyos. It’s less sweet and won’t age as well—but it will go better with duck.”

There is actually another level above six puttonyos, known as Tokaji Aszú Eszencia (“essence”), also called nectar, which is made from the free-run juice that squeezes from the baskets after the initial Aszú crush. The incredibly high sugar content (over 18 percent), causes an enormously protracted fermentation, sometimes taking four years or more to complete. The result is a wine that’s so thick and so concentrated and packed with antioxidants it has been used as a medicinal salve and was served by the teaspoonful to revive ailing patients on their deathbed. Eszencia can reportedly age for 200 years or more–giving the average person enough time to save up to actually afford a bottle.

Louis XV of France called Tokaji the “Wine of Kings, King of Wines,” it was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and it is so important to Hungary’s history, identity and commerce that the wine is even mentioned in the country’s national anthem.

Germany: Late-Harvest Riesling

If ever there was a place on this planet far removed from a year-round sugar source, it is Germany. The country’s positioning pushes its vineyards up against the most northern extreme of where grapes can be grown. In addition to the regular threat of frost and freezing, many of Germany’s best vineyards are also located on hillsides—some as steep as 70 percent. To work these vines, workers strap themselves into rope-and-pulley systems to traverse the slate- and basalt-covered slopes. To get it, you really have to want it.

Luckily, people do—and have since the Roman era.

Noble rot at work on riesling grapes in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyards in Germany – Photo: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble

German terroir is a harsh mistress, but faithful servants are richly rewarded. In fact, until the twentieth century, Germany rivaled France in terms of wine quality and reputation. Their grapes, maturing slowly over a cool growing season, maintain an electrifying acidity rarely matched anywhere else in the world, and the mountains that require so much human ingenuity to work also shield the area from the most extreme weather.

Most of Germany’s vineyards are also located near rivers (mainly the Rhein/Rhine). The geographical magic of a soil type that retains and reflects the sun’s heat, a sheltering mountain range, and the rushing Rhine and associated tributaries, create the perfect conditions for morning fog and dry afternoons. The fog brings botrytis; the sun keeps the rot from losing its nobility.

While one can presume the mold began appearing as soon as the first grapes ripened in the Rheingau, it was not until 1730 that documentation appears describing how a few farmers “gladly waited for a bit of noble rot in order to increase the sugar level of the grapes.” And yet the legend of late harvest—or Spätlese—wines doesn’t really begin until 1775. A messenger from the Schloss Johannisberg estate was delayed for two weeks on his way to get permission from the owner of the estate, the Prince Abbott of Fulda, to begin harvesting the Riesling-only vineyards. By the time the courier returned to the property, the grapes were infested with mold. The winemaker vinified the rotten fruit anyway, and the rest is history. The following year, the estate manager wrote “I have never tasted a wine like it before.” From the 1775 harvest forward, grapes were deliberately left longer on the vine, and Spätlese became the house style of the Schloss Johannisberg estate.

But what’s in a name? That which we call Spätlese—does it always taste sweet? Well actually, no.

The common misperception is that German Riesling is never fermented dry. After that, the next most common misperception is that Spätlese—and its potentially sweet sibling, Auslese (“select harvest”)are always sugary. In fact, German wine classifications are based on something called potential alcohol—the minimum sugar content in the grape. It is the amount of alcohol that would result if all the sugar in the wine was fermented. Spätlese and Auslese are always late-harvest wines, but they are not always dessert wines (order your Spätlese Trocken-at less than nine RS–if you need reason to believe).

Beerenauslese (“select berry harvest”) on the other hand, is botrytisized—those little mold spores poking holes in the fruit through which water escapes, leaving a higher concentration of juice. It is almost always sweet, but not as sweet as Trockenbeerenauslese (“select dry berry harvest”) which is always a dessert wine, always fermented from grapes that are more shriveled and raisin-like and have an even higher sugar concentration than Germany’s other late-harvest wines. But the pinnacle of German dessert ingenuity is Eiswein (“ice wine”). While most German late harvest wines are picked in October or November, grapes destined to become Eiswein are left until December—provided there is enough usable fruit after hail, birds, gray rot and/or unfavorable temperatures have had their way. The grapes are harvested at night, in temperatures of -8ºC (17.6ºF) or less, to ensure they are frozen solid, and are then crushed before they have had a chance to thaw. Any water remaining in the grape is discarded as ice, and the juice that remains ferments into a wine of both high acid and deep sweetness.

Although Austria and Canada have their own versions of this elixir, Germany is considered its true home.

France: Sauternes

Vines near the village of Sauternes – Photo by Olivier Aumage

Of course, as with anything, there are skeptics. Those who get crinkle-nosed at the idea of dessert wine—who wave it away in favor of something, perhaps, less “frivolous.” For them, there is this: recently, a bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem sold for $117,000. No doubt, these sweeties are not for kids.

It is not much of a surprise that the most expensive white wine ever sold—sweet or dry—happens to hail from Bordeaux, the home of haute names like Le Pin, Lafite, Petrus, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. There has been winemaking in the region since the 1st Century AD; sometime after that, people started paying whatever price was necessary in order to own the best bottles.

Despite Bordeaux’s long history of grape fermentation, the two prevailing legends about the region’s stickies are set rather late in time. The first involves Monsieur Frederic Focke—a negociant of German descent and owner of La Tour Blanche, in Bommes. Depending on who tells the story, Mr. Focke’s grapes developed noble rot (or, as the French call it, Pourriture Noble) by his own daring choice, or by accident (waiting until after the 1836 rains to begin harvesting). Either way, distant memories of late-harvest vinification in his mother country allegedly led to France’s first bottles of gold wine.

The second legend takes place in 1847 at Château d’Yquem. Marquis de Lur-Saluces, owner of the estate, had made it clear that no harvesting was to happen until he returned from his trip to Russia. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Marquis was delayed, and the resulting wine from the desiccated, shriveled grapes changed history.

However, the very evidence of Yquem’s record-breaking Sauternes from the 1811 vintage makes it hard to believe there was a lack of botrytis before this time. Furthermore, in his publication Sauternes and Barsac: The Classified Great Growths, French expert Claude Peyroutet explains that “as early as 1741, the Intendant of Guyenne described the manner in which these [sweet] wines were harvested, stating that the owners waited ‘until the grapes were almost rotten’ and added that picking ‘was carried out several times to give a sweeter wine.’ This provides very early confirmation of the presence of the Noble Rot.”

Historians actually credit the Dutch for giving Bordeaux its first taste of sweet wine. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch tradesmen had a strong presence in the region and brought their heavy blends with them—wines made by boiling lesser-quality whites and brandies with sugars, syrups, spices and aromatic plants. Over time, these merchants convinced winemakers in the Barsac area to ferment with higher residual sugar. “As early as 1613,” Mr. Peyroutet writes, “the Barsac nobility compiled documents relating to ‘practices and privileges’ for this growth.” From 1647 on, he says, wines from both Barsac and Sauternes were subject to different classifications and tariff schedules than those produced in other regions of Bordeaux, although it is unclear how large a part—if any—botrytis played in the process. What it does illustrate is that there was already a strong demand for their dessert wines.

Today, the 5,400-acre territory of Bordeaux sweet wine is made up of five villages: Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, Preignac, and Barsac. While these can all legally be classified under the Sauternes designation, Barsac estates can claim either Sauternes or Barsac as their home AOC. The regions are separated by the Ciron River, with Barsac to the northeast, and Sauternes on the other side. Winemaking techniques are identical in both areas.

As with the other regions we’ve looked at, the “twin appellations” of Sauternes and Barsac would be nothing if not for their geography and micro-climate–a micro-climate that has everything to do with the aforementioned Ciron, a tiny tributary of the Garonne River. As the growing season stretches toward winter, the waters of the Ciron get cooler while the deeper, larger Garonne retains much of its heat. The contrast in water temperatures creates the familiar fog that is so important to the development of Botrytis cinerea. The daytime sun dries the grapes, the nighttime mist creeps in under darkness, and the cycle continues. This magic has led to eleven first growth vineyards and one superior growth vineyard, all in an area that is packed into approximately 8.4 square miles.

From a small place comes small production. Aline Baly, Director of Marketing and third-generation owner of Chateau Coutet in Barsac-Sauternes explains that “to produce a very good wine, a producer will yield approximately a bottle per vine; the classified growths of Sauternes and Barsac produce approximately one glass per vine, due to the concentration level attained by the noble rot.” But it’s not just what happens in the vineyard that’s special: Baly explains another reason why Sauternes’ sweeties have been sought out for centuries, “Many claim that these wines have some aphrodisiac virtues … Sweet seduction in a bottle!”

Other sides of sweet

In an article like this, it is impossible to even hint at the myriad ways humankind has contrived to get a big fix from a tiny little grape. However varied the specifics, in the production of most dessert wine, we increase sugar concentrations by drying, freezing, allowing to raisin or encouraging a particular kind of rot.

But there is, of course, another great category of sticky: fortified wines. These are fermented beverages, made from grapes, which have undergone mutage—aka the addition of brandy or another high-alcohol spirit in order to stop fermentation. We have purposely left out this entire group because there are simply too many wines made in too many countries, with too many specifications, to do them much service here. But Port, Madeira, Sherry, and Marsala are too important to ignore altogether. They are historically important wines that have served as inspiration for styles the world over, including Australian Muscat and Tawny, and everything from American Angelica to good old Wild Irish Rose, Night Train and Thunderbird. Perhaps these are not all quite as elevated as the ambrosia Hesiod described as “Dionysos’s pleasure-giving gifts;” but each, in their own way, satisfies a particular craving for something sweet—and as a whole, they deserve their own story.

Arianna snacks, sups, sips and swallows—and lives to write about it. Always hungry for food adventures, she stays thirsty for wine and the occasional quality cocktail, as well. When she isn’t buried in her laptop or chasing after a food truck, she’s taking her son on adventures across Los Angeles and opening his mind to the amazing beauty of the world, its people, and the universality of coming together over a good meal. You can read more about her delicious escapades at,, and other assorted fine websites.