Beginning to tackle the world of wine can sure be a challenge. For one, it seems sommeliers — wine professionals — have it all down, from provenance to regions and all the notes along the way. Even the pronunciation can be daunting at first. Yes, wine can be something of an acquired taste, but many uninitiated wine palates find it easier to start off with something sweet. Sweet wines don’t come with that bitterness — similar to coffee and hoppy beer — that takes some getting used to.
Many people start out drinking sweet wines as an introduction of sorts into a wider world of wine drinking, as most people need to get used to the high tannin content found in red wines. By starting sweet, you can get comfortable with wine through sipping on Rosés or Moscatos and eventually move on to Merlots or Cabernet Sauvignons.
Everyone is different, and as a result, so is every palate. There’s no guarantee any certain wine will be more agreeable than any other, but in our experience, the sweet wines are an excellent starting point because they have more nuances than they normally get credit for.
Before We Begin: Wine Sweetness Chart Basics
So how do wine makers and sommeliers determine a wine’s relative sweetness? They typically use a chart known as a dryness scale. The drier a wine, the less sweet it’s perceived as being.
The least sweet wines are considered dry. The scale ranges from dry to very sweet on a point-system in the following order – dry (00/0), off-dry (1-2), medium dry or semi-sweet (3-4), sweet (5-6) and finally, very sweet (7+).
Sweet Wines vs. Dry Wines — What’s the Difference?
Where a wine falls on this scale is dependent on a couple of factors. These include the residual sugar, or rather the sugar that was not converted into alcohol during the fermentation process, and how much acid is in the wine.
The grape’s age at harvest also plays a part in how sweet or dry a wine is. Young grapes have less sugar and more acid than mature ones, making ripe grapes ideal for a sweeter drink. Some winemakers may infuse more sweetness into the grape after harvest by sunning it in natural light. It is a combination of various growth, harvest and fermentation factors — rather than a single condition or quality — that determines the sweet or dry level of a wine.
There are some exceptions. For example, many champagnes are labeled as being dry, despite generally tasting pretty sweet. Wines like Dry Rieslings or Gewürztraminers still tend to taste sweet. Most red table wines fall firmly into the dry category, despite variation in sweetness between varieties.
It often comes down to tannin content. Tannins are a naturally occurring compound found in wine and other foods or drinks that clash with the proteins in saliva to create a dry, bitter taste or mouthfeel. Wines with more tannins will have a drier taste than wines with few tannins, regardless of sugar content.
Types of Sweet Wines — Highlighted Picks
While many of us only have experience with a few different sweet wines, like a Riesling, there’s a whole world of wine possibilities just waiting to be explored. We’ve put together the ultimate guide to sweet wines, sorted by reds, whites and pinks, as well as which foods work best with each type.
Pink or Rosé Wines
A smaller category than reds and whites, pink wines often offer the best of both worlds, a little sweetness and a punch of rosy color. Most pink wines are wines made from red wine grapes, yet produced like a white wine. Here’s a look at some of our favorite pink or rosé wines:
A Pink Moscato is very similar to its white counterpart. It’s a sweet dessert wine with a slightly bubbly finish. It typically has notes of peach and apricot, as well as hints of berry, pomegranate and cherry. Pink Moscato is actually a white Moscato with a tiny bit of red grapes added in for a different flavor.
Pink Moscato pairs best with fruit, so think “light and delicate” when considering dessert, and skip the heavy chocolate cake or anything too dense. We suggest looking toward berry pies or tarts or a piece of fluffy white cake topped with strawberries, or perhaps something a bit more citrusy.
On the savory side of things, you can also use Pink Moscato as a lovely way to complement light lunches or a summertime dinner outdoors. In this case, think about pairing the wine with an aromatic Thai salad with cilantro, citrus and chicken. It also goes well with seafood such as oysters, shrimp, lobster and clams – just avoid drenching them in any heavy cream sauces.
A moderately sweet pink wine, White Zinfandel features a sweet lineup of flavors like cotton candy, berry and melon. White Zinfandel is much sweeter than other rosé wines because it lacks some of the dryness found in its other pink counterparts. Drinkers may find it more refreshing than Pink Moscatos or other very sweet dessert wines.
White Zinfandel is full of fruity, melon notes. It’s best to offset the sweetness with a bit of spice. Try pairing it with Thai or Szechuan cuisine for a high contrast blend of flavors, or you could go more traditional and pair this wine with bacon or pork, creamy pastas and mild cheeses like brie.
Sweet red wines might sound a bit like a contradiction to those who aren’t well-versed in wine culture, as well as those long time wine drinkers that never thought to give it a chance. We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite types of sweet red wines.
A wine made from Muscat of Alexandria and Schiava grapes, Black Muscat is a unique blend of medium bodied red wine, with a hint of Moscato. This wine is quite earthy, featuring tasting notes of rose as well as a hint of sweet tea.
While it is sweet, Black Muscat is still a red wine- meaning it pairs well with both milk chocolate and dark chocolate, and rich desserts like chocolate mousse. To take your dessert to the next level, warm fruit dishes like poached pears or a chocolate cake with raspberry sauce drizzled over the top. These pair very well with Black Muscat.
A red wine from Northern Italy, Schiava at first tastes a bit dry, but quickly reveals sweet notes of cherry, cotton candy and cinnamon, along with a slight floral essence. Sometimes Schiava is a bit hard to find, but should you be so lucky, it’s well worth the wait. If you can’t find it, try a blended wine that features it such as Porta Vita Rosso.
To offset the sweet cotton candy flavors of this unique wine, look for something on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. Think flavors like baked ham, cured meats like salami or prosciutto, and hard sheep’s cheeses like pecorino.
Lambrusco is a sweet and fruity Italian wine in the midst of a resurgence. It is made from about ten different types of grapes, and is slightly sparkling, with notes of raspberries, blackberries, cherry and almond. Many bottles also contain some floral aromatics such as roses and violets, adding an extra layer of depth to the overall flavor.
Lambrusco goes well with almost all kinds of pork — salami, prosciutto, pulled pork, or even rich, herbal Italian sausages. It also complements a burger, lamb, or even steak- really any heavy meat flavors. In terms of cheeses, Lambrusco best complements hard cheeses like parmesan, pecorino or any aged cheeses.
An Italian sparkling red hailing from the Brachetto region, this is a lesser-known, slightly sparkling dessert wine made from a light and refreshing red grape. This delicate red wine is full of lively notes of fresh raspberries and strawberries, with a faint rose petal aroma. Though this wine is bubbly, it’s much lighter than what you’ll find in a Champagne.
Brachetto d’Acqui is best served chilled and works well when paired with flavors that match the tasting notes found within the wine. Strawberry shortcakes, raspberry tarts, peach or plum pies, all work quite well with this little known sparkler. If you’re looking for a more interesting dessert juxtaposition, Brachetto d’Acqui is one of the few dessert wines that goes great with chocolate. Try it with chocolate hazelnut desserts, or a light and airy mousse.
Here, you’ll find the bulk of the sweet wines. While not all white wines are sweet, in general, they provide more of a sweetness than red wines, which are typically known for their bitterness—an acquired taste for many new wine drinkers. Here’s a look at some of the sweeter white wines out there, ranging from dessert status to the only slightly sweet.
A sweet, slightly effervescent wine, most Moscato wine refers to a type of sparkling wine known as Moscato d’Asti, a grape variety from the Piedmont region of Italy. Moscato is light and fresh, filled with a blend of fruit flavors like pineapple, lime, pear and orange. In some cases, Moscato will taste similar to apple or grape juices. Moscato is low in alcohol and is often served with the dessert course of a meal.
Moscato works surprisingly well with a wide range of foods. In terms of dessert, the wine works great with apple or pear tarts, pastries with a buttery flavor or with nuts, as well as with caramel, butterscotch and more. Additionally, Moscato is a fine companion to spicier dishes or lighter meats chicken, turkey or even seafood.
A white wine grown in the Rhine region of Germany, Riesling is loaded with a number of aromas ranging from perfumed florals to apples, pears and peaches, and a touch of something mineral. Because of its light, clear flavor profile, Riesling can be heavily influenced by the soil in which it grows, far more so than other types of wine.
While Rieslings hail from Germany, they tend to work quite well with a number of Asian cuisines like Vietnamese, Thai and Indian foods, known for both their pungent flavors and distinctive spice combinations. The high acid content in Riesling counteracts spicy flavors and provides a nice palate cleanser for those looking for some relief.
A German wine with a flavor profile similar to that of Moscato, Gewürztraminer has a slightly higher alcohol content than its Northern Italian counterpart, featuring an interesting lineup of fruit flavors like lychee, peach, pear and grapefruit, as well as ginger, honey and rose petal. In some cases, you’ll get a hint of a smokiness which adds another layer of nuance into the mix.
Gewürztraminer pairs well with a variety of foods. It works particularly well with poultry, pork and shellfish, as well as dishes heavy on spices like Thai curries, stir-frys and hot peppers. Naturally sweet vegetables are a nice complement to this sweet wine’s fruity notes. Think red onion, bell peppers, squashes or carrots. In terms of cheese, leave the stinky flavors behind and look for brie, provolone or other mild, softer cheeses.
A white wine from France’s Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc isn’t necessarily always sweet but is often considered a dessert wine with notable acidity, combined with a clear minerality and hints of honey. This wine comes in a number of styles. Some bottles have more of an oaky flavor, white others feature bright fruity notes like a crisp green apple, pear or peach.
Chenin Blanc works really well with rich dishes as the acidity helps cut though the fat of meats like duck or pork, as well as spicier cuisines, giving the palate a sense of relief in between heated bites. Drier versions of the wine work with sweet foods and can really take your dessert to the next level. Pair with apple pie or a lighter cake.
One of the most expensive dessert wines out there, Sauternes is a white wine from the Bordeaux region in France. This region and style rely on a friendly fungus known as noble rot, which adds a nuanced sweetness into the mix. The flavor profile of Sauternes is equal parts acidity and sweetness. It features a slight nuttiness, combined with honey, peaches and apricots.
Sauternes are rather complex for a dessert wine. They work great alongside brie or similarly- creamy cheeses, as well as fruit pies and tarts. Perhaps unexpectedly, they also work well during the main course. Try pairing this sweet wine with tender rich meats like veal, foie gras, salty hams, briny fish and foods with high spice content. The fruity acidic flavors cut through fats and spice with ease, and harmonize with other complementary sweet flavors.
A Hungarian white wine, Tokaji actually gets its unique flavor from a fungus that grows on the grapes, called grey mold or botrytis. Most conditions during the growing season cause mold to show up on the grapes, which then dries when the sun comes out. This causes the grapes to shrivel up, which results in them producing a sweeter flavor- characterized by notes of ginger, saffron and beeswax. Tokaji wines are all very sweet and are rated according to how much residual sugar can be found within each bottle. Many contain a similar sugar content to that of a soda.
Tokaji is traditionally paired with foie gras, the sweetness of the wine is the perfect foil to the goose liver’s inherent fattiness. Tokaji wine also works really well with a number of cheeses like Comte, blue cheese, brie or a number of goat cheeses. Because Tokaji is so sweet, it seems to work best when paired with something salty or very savory, rather than a dessert dish.
Port wine falls slightly outside of the categories of white, red or even pink wines. Though typically made from a collection of red wines, this style offers a more alcoholic take on sweet wine, meant for sipping on its own or as a rich companion to dessert. Port, as its name suggests, hails from Portugal and is fortified with a bit of brandy for good measure, bringing the alcohol content up a few points higher than traditional wines.
The youngest and most common variety of port wine, ruby port combines a number of different wines to make a single bottle that features a mix of red berry aromas, along with caramel and nut flavors. Though noticeably sweet, the high alcohol content and unique blend of rich flavors mean this wine packs a powerful punch.
Port is often enjoyed at the end of a meal rather than during the main event, however, it can be a lovely addition to dessert or even alongside appetizers. Ruby port works quite well with desserts featuring milk chocolate or dark chocolate, or fruit pies. Creamy cheeses also work well with this hearty dessert wine. Look toward blue cheese or fresh berries that complement the fruit notes found in the wine.
Tawny ports are comparable to Scotches and Cognacs — spirits known for the nuances picked up throughout the aging process, as well as their strength and nuance — though they only contain about half of the alcohol content. Tawny ports feature a sweet blend of vintage wines and due to their maturity, tend to have nuttier flavors like fig, date or prune, as opposed to the fresh red berry flavors one can expect to find inside a bottle of ruby port. Tawnies are generally released in 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old batches, and as a result, tend to be rather expensive, though in some cases, you may be able to track down a bottle for just over $25
Tawny ports work best when coupled with aged cheeses like cheddars, Stiltons or Manchegos and some sliced crusty bread. On the other hand, desserts like pumpkin pie, cheesecake or caramel desserts work well with tawny ports as well. Nutty flavors and cooked fruits echo the wine’s subtle notes and make them a great pairing option
Made from a combination of white wines, white port is rather uncommon, but it can be a nice alternative to heavier versions of the beverage. A fortified wine, white port has a higher alcohol content than most wines, typically hovering around 18-20%. Many people use this to make a mixed drink akin to a gin and tonic, or as the base for a sangria.
White port is surprisingly versatile and works well with sushi or pate, as well as nuts and hard cheeses. It also works really well with stone fruits like peaches, plums or nectarines, and can be a nice sipping companion to a light sponge cake for dessert.
Pairing Food With Sweet Wines
As you’ve seen, every wine has its own flavor profile that makes it the perfect complement to specific sweet and savory foods. That said, there are a few general rules to keep in mind as you consider which dish to pair with your next bottle:
- Create a balance: Create balance by pairing your sweet wine with equally bold flavors. Some sweet wines pair exceptionally well with spicy dishes, while others bring out the earthy flavors of mushroom and nut infused meals. Sweet wines are ideal with strong cheeses, and you can create a delicious salty-sweet sensation by pairing it with cured meats and brined food. You can pair acidic, sweet wine with rich desserts as well. Sweet wines also balance sour flavors, or you can choose a lighter sip to equal out an indulgent bite.
- Complement existing flavors: Use your sweet wine to complement existing flavors by matching prominent flavor notes. For example, sweet wines and sweet shellfish pair nicely, while rich wines are the ideal pairing with deep, caramelized flavors in sweet and savory broths or sauces.
- Do a trial run: If you’re unsure whether your chosen wine will help or hinder your meal, have a small trial run before serving. Sample a small bite and sip of your flavors together and note what you like or don’t like to move forward.
- Wine for dessert: When it comes to dessert wines, like a Sauterne or Moscato, it’s ok to let their decadent sweetness shine on their own. In fact, many sweet wine types are best enjoyed when they are the star of the dessert course, rather than paired with an equally sweet bite.
Give in to Your Sweet Tooth With Marketview Wine’s Sweet Selection
Now that you’ve got some ideas under your belt, why not explore some new options? We have a great wine lineup of sweet wines from Rosé, to sweet reds, to sweet whites – all great options for your next party, summer barbeque or other event!
If you are looking to stock up, we offer free shipping when you buy six or more bottles of select wines, and 10% off on select mix and match cases, ideal for trying out a few different sweet wines at one time!