The best sweet wines (red and white) of the Mediterranean, their types, how to enjoy them and their food pairings. Plus a no-gelatin panna cotta recipe made with sweet wine.
Who loves sweet wines? Also known as dessert wines, they're generally served after dinner with dessert but they can also be enjoyed instead of a dessert, as a delicious and lighter way to finish your dinner.
In other occasions they can accompany a cheese platter during a gathering with friends. If you place some roasted nuts and dried fruits among the cheese or even a small bowl with homemade small batch peach jam (no pectin) you'll make things even more interesting!
Sweet wines, also known as dessert wines, are the wines with a higher sugar content which results in a sweeter taste. However, the level of sweetness is also relative to the alcohol content, the acidity and the tannins in the wine.
For example, sugars and alcohol enhance a wine's sweetness while the acidity (sourness) and the tannins (bitterness) make it taste less sweet.
In my opinion, other factors that may affect our perception of sweetness is the temperature of the wine, the foods we pair it with, and the carbon dioxide (the bubbles) it contains. That's why a sparkling wine will taste less sweet than a stil wine, even if both have the same amount of sugars.
Types of sweet dessert Wines
- Sparkling Dessert Wines like Moscato d'Asti, Asti spumante, Brachetto d’Acqui.
- Lightly Sweet Wines like Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Viognier. These are perfect for a warm afternoon.
- Richly Sweet Dessert Wines like Sauternais and Muscat-based wines.
- Fortified Wines like Port, Sherry, Mavrodaphni.
How is sweet wine made
There are several ways to make sweet wine and some of them may depend on the type of the grapes or the geographical position of each area. Most of them have in common the fact that they try to “dehydrate” the grapes and concentrate their natural sugars.
- Late Harvest. The grapes are left on the vines longer than usual, until they're darker in color and almost rinkly. This makes them sweeter and their taste is concentrated because they've lost a lot of their moisture.
- Noble Rot. The grapes are “attacked” by Botrytis Cinerea, a good fungus, which makes them shrivel like raisins. As a result their flavors and sugars become more concentrated. Noble rot adds ginger and honey notes to the wine.
- Straw wines. The grapes are harvested and placed on straws and under the sun until they're dried (the straws are used for air circulation).
- Ice wine (Eiswein)This kind of wine is very rare because it's made under very special conditions when the vines freeze due to low temperature and the grapes are harvested while still frozen (usually during the night). That's why this wine is usually produced in countries with cold climate like Canada, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
- Fortified wines. These wines are produced when alcohol is added to the must (grape juice) while it is still fermenting. The alcohol stops the fermentation leaving residual sugar that makes the wine sweet.
What are the best Mediterranean wines?
It's no secret that the Mediterranean has some of the best wines, and sweet wines are no exception. In this list I'm going to mention just some of my favorites (I'll try to cover each category) because I don't want it to be a large list, and also I'm sure I don't know all of them.
Moscato d’ Asti
An Italian sparkling sweet white wine produced from the variety Moscato Bianco. It's not very fizzy but highly aromatic with notes of peaches, lemons, grapes and orange blossom. It also has low alcohol content. I love to drink this wine either when I have brunch with friends or on a night out during summer. I also use it to make a sweeter variation of Aperol Spritz. Serve at: 42° to 50° F (6°-10° C). Foods to pair Moscato d’ Asti with: fresh strawberries, Panettone, dried fruit, almond biscotti and other cookies, desserts with cream, cheese.
Bracchetto d’ Acqui
An Italian sweet red sparkling wine which sometimes is called the light red equivalent of Moscato d'Asti. It's very aromatic with distinctive notes of strawberries. You can serve it as an aperitif or as a dessert wine. Serve at: 40° to 50° F (4°-10° C). Foods to pair Bracchetto d’ Acqui with: chocolate, fruit, nuts and soft cheeses. The best way to enjoy it is with a bowl of strawberries or fresh ripe peaches or with a slice of this easy no-bake cheesecake with sauteed peaches.
Greek Muscat sweet wines
These wines come from the islands of Samos and Lemnos or from Rio (a town close to Patra) and you'll find them by the names “Samos Vin Doux”, “Muscat de Limnos” and “Muscat de Rio Patras”. They're sweet white wines with flowery notes of rose and lemon blossoms, fruity notes like grape, peach, melon and orange and other notes that will remind you of honey or caramel. Especially the muscat from Limnos is made from a highly aromatic variety (Muscat from Alexandreia) which gives the wine a distinctive “elegance”. Serve at: 50° F (10° C). Foods to pair sweet Muscat wines with: fruit tarts (this grape fruit tart with easy olive oil crust is a combination made in heaven), cheese platters and nuts.
Vinsanto sweet wine from Santorini
It all begins with the unique terroir of the island of Santorini in Greece. The volcanic soil, the dry, anhydrous climate, the sun-scorched terrain and the vines which are shaped like baskets in order to protect the grapes from the harsh winds, create some of the best sweet wines in the world. Vinsanto is one of them, made from the white grape varieties Asyrtico, Aidani and Atheri. Because the grapes are harvested and left under the sun (straw wine) it has a deep amber color while a more mature wine can have a brown/red color. Tasting it you'll recognize sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves, dried fruit like apricots and raisins, nuts, maple and honey. Serve at: 50° - 53° F (10°-12° C). Foods to pair Vinsanto with: caramel, coffee and dried fruit based desserts, or a sharp salty cheese, even Roquefort. This chocolate and coffee (mocha) mousse cake with caramel and peanuts sounds perfect!
Sauternes is a sweet wine from the Sauternais region near Bordeaux, France. It is made with Noble Rot from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. The grapes are often harvested late in the season to give the wine extra sugar. Sauternes wine has flavors of honey, apricots and peaches with subtle nutty notes. In addition to pairing well with desserts, it also goes well with a number of savory dishes, such as seafood and creamy dishes. Serve at: 50° F (10° C). Foods to pair Sauternes with: savory dishes with cheeses and caramelized onions and desserts like cheesecakes, custards, meringues, and tarts like this jam tart with olive oil crust.
Though Sauternes is the most famous French sweet wine, it is not the only one. Vin Doux Naturels (VDN) are wines obtained by an early termination of the fermentation with alcohol (fortified wines), the Vin de raisins surmûris is produced from overripe grapes, and theVin de Paille is a straw wine. You can find more information in this article about the sweet wines of France.
Marsala is a Sicilian wine, dry or sweet. It is fortified with brandy or neutral grape spirit usually made with regional grapes. It features flavors of vanilla, brown sugar, apricot, caramel, dried fruits, licorice and maybe tobacco. Marsala wine is frequently used in cooking but it's also famous because it's an ingredient for zabaglione and tiramisu. Serve at: 55° F (12° C). Foods to pair Marsala with: smoked meats, goat cheese, nuts and chocolate desserts like these moist chocolate cupcakes with mascarpone frosting.
Mavrodaphne (or Mavrodafni) of Patras
Mavrodaphne is a Greek red sweet wine (fortified) made from the Mavrodaphne variety but it can also contain the Mavri Korinthiaki variety in a smaller percentage. It has a deep ruby color and similar taste to Port with flavors of cherries, vanilla, dried fruits, caramel and chocolate. Serve at: 46° to 50° F (8°-10° C) Foods to pair Mavrodaphne with: pork tenderloin with sweet wine sauce, dried nuts, Gorgonzola or Stilton cheese and dried fruits. An aged Mavrodaphne can be a great accompaniment to chocolate desserts.
Port (or Porto)
Port is a Portugal sweet wine. Strictly speaking, Portugal is not a Mediterranean country, because it doesn't border the Mediterranean Sea, but the culture, history, climate and the people can be considered Mediterranean. That's why Port is included in this list. Port is a fortified wine, usually made from red grape varieties (there's also white Port). It has flavors of blackberry, cinnamon, caramel and chocolate. Serve at: 59° – 68 °F (15° - 20 °C) but you may also want to try it a bit cooler. Foods to pair Port with: salty cheese, dried fruits and walnuts, this 5-ingredient flourless chocolate cake.
Sherry is a Spanish fortified wine with many variations, from dry to sweet and light to intense. Cream Sherry is sweet with velvety texture but the sweetest variety is Pedro Ximénez (PX Sherry). PX Sherry is made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes with flavors of toffee, fig, raisins, dates, vanilla, coffee and molasses. It is also used to sweeten other types of sweet sherry. It's also versatile, pairing well with sharp hard cheeses such as Parmesan, very mature Manchego and mature Cheddar, medium strength blues such as Gorgonzola, and cheeses with a sweet side like Ermesenda. Serve at: Because it's very sweet I prefer to drink it at 50° F (10° C) but you can also serve it at 60° F (15° C). Foods to pair PX Sherry with: blue cheese, patés , salty nuts, strawberries, pecan pies and tarts, and this no-churn homemade chocolate ice cream. For more information, read this article about sherry food pairings.
Commandaria is a sweet dessert wine from Cyprous made from the indigenous grape varieties Xynisteri (white) and Mavro (red) and it’s reported to be the oldest wine still being manufactured, with records of its production dating as far back as 800 B.C. The grapes are left to overripe on the vine and then are laid out in the sun to further increase their sugar density. Commandaria can be fortified with alcohol but this is not mandatory. It has aromas of sweet dried plums, honey, spices, caramel and butterscotch with a rich and concentrated flavor. Serve at: 46° to 50° F (8° - 10° C). Foods to pair Commandaria with: platters with aged cheese like a Greek kefalotyri, an aged halloumi, an Italian Parmigiano Regiano, or a sharp cheddar and maybe some goat cheese. If you want to pair it with dessert, it's probably best for the wine to be sweeter than the dessert itself, so try some bitter chocolate desserts, sweets with caramel and custards without too much sugar.
Which is the sweetest wine? ,
If you're searching for the sweetest wine in the world, then probably a P.X. Sherry is the one for you.
What is a good sweet wine for beginners?
Moscato d’ Asti is a perfect sparkling sweet wine with beginners since it's light, semi-sparkling and very refreshing. You can serve it with brunch, drink it on a warm afternoon, or after dinner with dessert. A Greek Muscat wine with its flowery and fruity notes is also perfect for beginners since my experience tells me that it's loved by most people.
The no-gelatin panna cotta with sweet wine
This recipe is inspired by Anna Olson’s Icewine Crème Brûlée . She uses icewine since she's from Canada, one of the countries where icewine is made. In this no-gelatin panna cotta you can actually use any sweet wine (I haven't tried it with a sparkling one) but I mostly prefer a Greek Muscat, a Vinsanto, a Marsala or a Sauternes.
This no gelatin panna cotta is served in a glass because the texture is silky and very delicate. It uses the acidity of the wine and some freshly squeezed lemon juice to set the cream and it is best served with fresh fruit or homemade jam and crispy oat cookie for textural interest. This is probably the easiest dessert you’ll ever make. Just heat some cream, add the wine, the lemon and the sugar/honey and you’re done!
If you want to create the tilted effect you see in the pictures, you'll have to place the glasses on an egg carton with an angle, or make some nests out of foil, big enough to hold the glasses tilted. First place the nests on a tray, then fill the glasses carefully (a pitcher will help a lot!) and afterwards refrigerate them until firm.
If you don't want to make the oat cookie, omit it completely or replace it with a tablespoon or two of homemade granola.
Mediterranean sweet wines and a panna cotta recipe
- For the cream:
- 2 ½ cups (580 grams) heavy cream (full fat, 35%)
- ½ cup (100 grams) sugar
- 1 tablespoon (15 grams) honey
- ½ cup (118 grams) sweet white wine
- 2 ½ tablespoons (35 grams) lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon (2.5 grams) vanilla
- A pinch of salt
- For the crispy oat cookie:
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon melted butter
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 5 tablespoons rolled oats
- A pinch of cinnamon
- Fresh fruits or jam or both for serving
- Make the cream: Transfer the cream, the salt, the honey and the sugar to a pot and heat over medium heat stirring until the sugar has dissolved.Remove from the heat and stir in the wine, lemon juice and vanilla. Taste the cream, and if you feel you want it sweeter, add another tablespoon of sugar, and stir until dissolved.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes, pour into 6 serving glasses and refrigerate overnight or at least 6 hours.
- Make the oat cookie: Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C), line a pan with foil and brush it with some oil.Transfer the maple syrup, the sugar and the butter to a bowl and mix well. Add the oats and the cinnamon and mix until homogenized.
- Bake: Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and spread it evenly with a spatula to a thin layer. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until brown at the edges.Let it cool completely, break into pieces and store in an airtight container.
- Just before serving add some jam and fresh fruit in each glass and top with one or two pieces of oat cookie.