As we roll into fall and winter, thoughts of roaring fires, cashmere sweaters, and elegant dinner parties are filling my head. And with this in mind, “Red on Reds” is taking a slight detour into the sumptuous world of dessert wines: What are they, what do they pair well with, and how sweet is sweet?

Dessert wines in general are defined as sweet wines, made from either red or white grapes. They can be sipped alone or with rich, sweet goodies. When pairing, it is recommended you choose a wine that is slightly sweeter than the food companion. Many dessert wines taste best paired with cheese or fruit – and we’ll address such pairings in a future column.

Some dessert wines are meant to be served chilled, but there are conflicting reports out there that say room temperature is best so as not to tone down the sweetness. It’s best to check with the wine shop owner or consult the winery’s website for more info. A buffet of flavors abound in dessert wines such as pear, raisin, caramel, peach and almond, to name just a few, which also contributes to their range of sweetness.

I’ve tasted some great ports and muscats in my day and often opt for a dessert wine as my sole dessert, rather than alongside any tasty morsels. So as we delve into dessert territory, let’s dissect some universal terms about sweet wines in general:

  • Sec: Literally meaning “dry”, these are wines without a lot of residual sugar. In the Champagne region, this term refers to medium-sweet versions that are sweeter than traditional Brut.
  • Demi-sec: Literally meaning “semi-dry”, this describes wines that are kind of sweet – up to 5% sugar.

Many people would not associate crisp, dry sparkling wines with apple tarts or caramel confections. But if Champagnes are labeled sec or demi-sec, they may have just enough sugar to make them ideal partners for sweet desserts. Double check with the sommelier to be sure you experience the best for both the wine and the food.

  • Late Harvest: These wines are super sweet with high concentrations of sugar, and thus, alcohol. The grapes are aged and shriveled, thus concentrating their sweetness and flavor - even if it’s a traditionally drier grape like Zinfandel.

German wines come in three classes of sweet. The most common from bottom to top are kabinett, spatlese and auslese. Then it gets really sweet with beerenauslese and super sweet – and usually expensive – with Eiswein.

Some advice from former wine shop manager and my favorite bon vivant, Carrie, “If the label says Chateau d’Yquem and you aren’t paying the bill, don’t worry about all the other words!”

  • Fortified Wines: Unfortunately not in the sense of extra vitamins, “fortified” in this case means additional alcohol has been added, most commonly from brandy. Originally, this was done to preserve wine for long storage or journeys, but continues to be done for a sweeter taste (more alcohol equals more residual sugar). Port, Vermouth, Marsala, Madeira and Sherry are all fortified wines. Legally called dessert wines in the States, Europe refers to such wines as liqueur wines.

I’ve always found a good all-around dessert wine to be Bonny Doon’s Muscat Vin de Glaciere, which can be found on many a restaurant dessert menu. Juicy trivia tidbit: did you know that the breadth and number of muscat grape varieties suggest that this grape family is very old, perhaps the oldest domesticated grape variety? You also can’t go wrong with a lovely Sauterne.

Sweet wines are just like sampling desserts. Try a few until you find what you like. I would suggest tasting a few without any desserts just to get a feel for texture, sweetness and what your palate will tolerate. Many people I know can’t stand sweet wine of any variety and that is okay. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can start to mix and match with various goodies after dinner for just the right level of yum.

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists.  She is based in Seattle.