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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”

― William Shakespeare

As the weather gets colder, we seek a means to get warmer. Cozy sweaters, woolly socks, and a quick turn of the thermostat dial are our go-to means to warm up, but how about sipping on a dessert-style wine? Obviously, we can’t do this during work hours- or most of us can’t! – but there’s just something about that sweeter wine that gets us all warm and fuzzy on the inside!

What exactly IS a dessert-style wine, you ask? Well, like Juliet indicated to Romeo in the above quote, it is simply a name to categorize many wines. The general rule would be any wine over 7% residual sugar, but let’s dive deeper into all the different options you can find along the wine trail.

Late Harvest or Late Pick Wine

A Late Harvest or Late Pick Wine is just that- a wine that is picked later in harvest, usually at the very end. By the time those grapes are picked, they closely resemble a raisin, also called botrytized fruit*, because it naturally dehydrates on the vine, which leaves behind all the flavors and sugars. And speaking of sugars- the longer a grape is on the vine, the higher the sugar content the winemaker has to work with thus creating this deliciously sweet wine.

*Botrytized fruit is when a “noble rot,” or botrytis, starts to grow. It sounds scary, but it’s actually a good thing. It helps the dessert wine develop more of their sweetness.

Ice Wine

Ice Wine is a type of dessert wine that’s produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Ideal conditions would be 6 hours of consistently below freezing temps, typically in the teens, but before the botrytis takes a turn for the worse, thus making a true Ice Wine a real treasure. The sugars in the grape don’t freeze- but the water does- which allows a more concentrated grape juice to develop. The grapes are even pressed while still frozen, which results in a small amount of juice, but a very sweet wine. Remember- the longer the grape is on the vine the sweeter it becomes. Typical harvest starts in September, and ice wine picking generally takes place anytime between November and January.

Iced Wine

Because conditions to create an Ice Wine are a dime a dozen, Iced Wine was introduced. It’s still just as delicious and time consuming to produce, but Iced Wine doesn’t require relying on Mother Nature to give you the perfectly chilled November morning. In this case, hand selected grapes are frozen before they’re pressed. To get that sweetness of a dessert-style wine, late harvested grapes are used for this.

The difference between the two is subjective and is often a hot debate amongst winemakers. Some believe that letting the wines naturally freeze brings out more of the complex flavors of plum, honey, and raisin. While those that use the non-traditional method believe that it can create its own intense flavor due to the late harvest and noble rot, which deepens and changes the flavor.

Fortified Wine

A fortified wine is a wine that has had a distilled spirit added to it, typically brandy, which is used to enhance the flavor. When it’s added to the wine before the fermentation process is complete, the alcohol in the distilled product kills the yeast, stops the fermentation, and leaves behind residual sugar. The end result is a wine that is sweeter and stronger, and normally containing a higher Alcohol By Volume.

The main fortified wine you’ll find in the Finger Lakes is a Port-style wine. Port wine is from the Douro Valley in North Portugal. It’s typically sweet and red, though it can also come in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Since we aren’t in Portugal, similar to Champagne, we can’t call it Port, so we dub it “Port-style.” This allows us to be freer with how we make this wine, since we don’ have to follow the strict rules that create a true Port. With this freedom, we’re able to experiment with different grape varieties to create different flavors.

Though rarer, you’ll also find Sherry, which is made exclusively from white grapes. “Cream Sherry” is the type you’ll find in the Finger Lakes. This Sherry is typically aged under flor, a yeast-like growth that helps protect the wine from excessive oxidation, but then is exposed to air under controlled measures. This produces a darker and richer wine. These are then sweetened to give it the “Cream Sherry” name.

One of the differences in Port-style and Sherry is when the fortification happens. In Sherry, the fortification takes place at the end of fermentation, after the yeast has already consumed all of the sugars. In Port-style, it takes place mid-fermentation, which means that is cuts off fermentation, thus leaving behind a lot of residual sugar not yet consumed by the yeast, making it naturally sweeter. Sherry is naturally dry, so to create a sweet Sherry, the sweetness is added.


A liqueur, not to be confused with liquor, is a drink composed of distilled spirts and heavily sweetened with additional flavorings such as sugar, fruits, herbs, and/or spices. In the wineries case, they typically sweeten a grape-based vodka with flavors such as almond, lemon, lime, maple, or raspberry to create a nice, sippable after-dinner beverage. Typically, liqueurs have at least 23% ABV.


Grappa is a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of Italian descent that contains anywhere from 35-60% alcohol by volume. Like wine, the flavor of Grappa depends on the variety of grapes used, as well as the distillation process. It’s made from distilling the pomace, which is comprised of the leftover skins, pulp, seeds, and stems after pressing the grapes for winemaking.

In Italy, Grappa is primarily served as an after-dinner drink as it’s main purpose is to aid in the digestion of heavy meals. It’s also often added to espresso to create caffe corretto, meaning “corrected coffee.” In some parts of Italy, there is resentin, meaning “little rinser”.After finishing a cup of espresso with sugar, a few drops of grappa are poured into the nearly empty cup, swirled, and drunk down in one sip.

Finally- Sweet Wines

A good starting point to choosing a dessert-style wine is anything over 7%. As we learned above, the longer the grape is on the vine, the sweeter it becomes. Combine that with the fermentation process, and the winemaker can create a seriously delicious and sweet wine. Sweet wines are incredibly refreshing in the summertime but are also a great way to warm up in the wintertime, making it a versatile beverage. I’d never be able to list all the sweet wine possibilities but to name a few:

  • Sangria
  • Fruit Wines
  • Sweet Rieslings
  • Wines with these grapes:
    • Concord
    • Niagara
    • Catawba
    • Diamond
    • Moscato

Not all of these wines/grapes might make the 7% cut, but dessert-style is subjective and broad. Use your own judgement when selecting what to drink for/with dessert. Also, these aren’t only good with dessert. You’re welcome to drink any of the above whenever you want!

If you ARE pairing wines with dessert, remember that the wine should typically be sweeter than it’s food counterpart, unless you’re pairing a chocolate with a drier red.

You can also use the wines IN your desserts. Fruit-flavored wines especially make a really good water substitute in recipes such as brownies.

Check out these offers along the trail* for the entire month of January

Montezuma Winery-

Swedish Hill Winery-

Knapp Winery-

Goose Watch Winery-

Buttonwood Grove Winery-

  • Complimentary tasting of 2017 Riesling Ice Wine with purchase of a regular tasting
  • 15% off 3 or more bottles (in-store only)

Toro Run Winery

  • Complimentary tasting of Late Harvest Riesling with purchase of a regular tasting
  • $10 bottles, no additional discounts apply, in-store only

Thirsty Owl Wine Co.

Hosmer Winery

*At participating wineries

Conditions for an ice wine picking are a dime a dozen! The photos below are from Thirsty Owl on January 11, 2019 for a yet-to-be-released Cab Sauv Ice vintage! This particular day it was 12 degrees out which is a perfect condition!