Identifying Sweet White Wines

Dessert Wine, Ice Wine, Late Harvest Wine and More

Restaurant server pouring white wine

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Sweet wines are a magnet drawing would-be wine lovers away from sweet cocktails, colas, and teas to the wide world of wine. First dips into dessert wines tend towards white wines that lie on the sweeter side of the spectrum. Sweeter-styled white wines are significantly easier to find than their sweet red wine counterparts. When someone asks for a "sweet wine" they are really communicating that they prefer wines that are not dry. In the world of wine, sweet is the opposite of dry.

What Makes a White Wine Sweet?

When wine goes through fermentation, the grape's natural sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast. When a winemaker stops the fermentation process short, some of the wine's sugar remains unconverted into alcohol and makes up the wine's residual sugar (RS) content. It's this residual sugar that offers up the sweet factor in wine. We can only taste four factors: sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but we can smell thousands of unique aromas. It's the interplay between our taste buds and our olfactory functions that allow us to perceive such variety in flavor.

White Wines: Sweet vs. Fruity

When you taste a wine that is particularly "fruit-forward," meaning that you can both smell and taste abundant fruit when drinking the wine, it can be perceived as sweeter than it really is. To discern between true sweet and perceived "fruitiness" you merely have to plug your nose and taste, true sugar persists regardless of aromatic interventions.

Illustration with text describing six different types of sweet wines.
The Spruce / Miguel Co

How Can You Tell If a White Wine Will Be Sweet?

White wine labels can offer wine detectives initial clues as to the sweetness levels of a wine. Generally speaking, there will be one of two extremes: either the wine will have a really high alcohol content, as in a fortified wine such as Sherry, or it will be low in alcohol content like many of Germany's Rieslings, with ranges of 8-12% alcohol. However, this method falls short in the case of the French Sauternes, which often weigh in at the average for table wine, 14% abv. It's interesting to note that the International Riesling Foundation has designed a labeling initiative, the Riesling Taste Profile, that allows consumers to determine sweetness levels based on a back of bottle scale. It certainly makes it easier to find a sweet white wine, without all of the guesswork, perhaps it will catch on with other sweet wines.

Types of Sweet White Wines to Try

  • Ice Wines - made from grapes that are frozen on the vine and then pressed and fermented. The result is an incredibly rich, ultra-sweet dessert wine.
  • Moscato - is a semi-sparkling, semi-sweet to sweet, lighter-bodied white wine made from the Moscato grape. It enjoys a tremendous following as the perfect accompaniment to brunch, fruit-based desserts and has even gathered fans in the savory food pairing category. Originally from Italy's Piedmont region, Moscato takes aromatics to a whole new level. Fresh floral, ripe stone fruit and exotic spice mark an extraordinarily perfumed component to this unique sweet wine.
  • Sherry - is a fortified wine, produced in southwest Spain's "Sherry Triangle" from white wine grapes. Sherry is also quite rich and depending on the style can range from dry to super-sweet as in the Pedro Ximénez.
  • Tokaji - is the famous (and expensive) Hungarian dessert wine that has been serving royalty for centuries. It is made from white wine grape varietals that have been affected by botrytis, noble rot, which results in super-concentrated grape sugars and a super sweet white wine gem.
  • Late Harvest Wines - are made from grapes that are, as the name indicates, picked later during the harvest season. These grapes may or may not be affected by botrytis, but they will be shriveled a bit regardless and thus have higher levels of concentrated sugar. You'll find these late harvest dessert wines from all over the world, but Germany and Austria may be the most famous.
  • Sauternes - The famed French dessert wine, Sauternes, are also made from grapes that have been affected by botrytis, the noble rot, that renders a grape ugly on the outside and downright delicious on the inside. Like liquid gold, the must from these grapes is intense and amazingly sweet, yet balanced by some hardcore acidity making it both age-worthy and undeniably rich. These grapes are picked by hand and yield little juice, so the price will be somewhat of a shock.