Dessert Wines vs. Fortified Wines: Know Your Stuff

In Dining to Tell 

Dessert wines and fortified wines are the pinnacle of sophistication. Yet, it is easy to get in a muddle with all this stuff as they all sound and sometimes even taste alike. But it really as isn’t as complicated as it all sounds. Here are the simple differences between the two categories and some of the varietals that you need to be on the lookout for next time you out to dinner!

Fortified wines

Basically, fortified wine is wine that has had additional alcohol added to it. Most likely that distilled spirit will be brandy. This leads to a higher, overall alcohol percentage, yet also increases the complexity of flavours present within the liquid. Probably the most famous of these are port, sherry, madeira and marsala. Historically, the original idea for fortifying wine was to increase and strengthen its longevity. Ethanol is a great preservative and therefore added more value to wines during long transportation times. These days, fortification is done purely for the added flavour complexity that the additional spirit lends to the wine.

During the fermentation process, the distilled spirit is added. Resulting in a sweeter wine with a higher alcohol percentage. Around 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). The earlier the spirit is added, the sweeter the wine will be. For drier, fortified wines such as dry sherry, the spirit is added just near the end of the fermentation process ensuring that the sweetness is kept under control.


Famous stuff, this Madeira. It was even said to have been poured for Thomas Jefferson’s toast at the Declaration of Independence. It is hard to sometimes tell Madeira and Marsala apart. Both are fortified with an ABV of 15-20%. Both are likely to be sweet too with similar honeyed flavours. Yet, Madeira originate from the Madeiros Islands in the Atlantic. In cooking, you can often get away with substituting one for the other. Especially, with mushroom sauces as they go equally well with those. Even experts get confused with this stuff. What it says on the bottle is not always what matches up in taste. So, a dry can be very rich and sweet and a medium dry might taste very dry on the palette. It all has to do with the acidity of the grapes. Madeira is special in that oxygen, time and heat will do absolutely nothing to destroy it which is the antithesis of other wines. Making this sturdy stuff and if you get your hands on a decent bottle, you will find beautiful rich flavours of plums, coffee and spices such as nutmeg and cardamom. Use stuff labelled ‘finest’ for cooking but if you looking to sip at it rather go for ‘special reserve’ (aged for 10 years) or ‘extra reserve’ (aged for 15-20 years).


Originating on the island of Sicily, marsala is famous for cooking. Originally, made as a cheaper alternative to port or sherry, marsala is used in savoury dishes or rich Italian desserts and is excellent when reduced to provide caramelization. It can be classified as secco (the driest) semi-secco (semi sweet) or sweet and also comes in three colours: amber, ruby, gold. In true marsala, you will get notes of apricot, tobacco leaves, vanilla, tamarind and brown sugar coming through. Vastly underrated as sipping beverage, we believe it can stand on its own. With the pricier stuff, you might even taste notes of liquorice, walnut and honey. Just be prepared to spend a bit extra on a decent bottle. Don’t go cheap on this stuff, it’s really not worth it.

Making a comeback in 2016, sherry is experiencing something of a resurgence. Thought of as an aperitif for grannies the world over, sherry is starting to shed its dusty image and be seen as something of a trend-setter. Hailing from the Andalusian region of Spain, sommeliers there confirm it. Millennials can’t seem to get enough of the liquid amber produced by the Palamino grape. Personally, I prefer a medium cream sherry myself, sweet but not too dark or complicated.

Dessert wine

The complex world of dessert wines can be intimidating for many. Ranging from lightly sweet and sparkling, to richly sweet and non-sparkling, the world of dessert wines is often a mystery. But the thing to remember is that most wines that are off-dry or slightly sweet can be served as a dessert. Simple. From Moscato to wines made from Noble Rot (don’t freak out about the name – it is a legit thing), dessert wine is something that you can learn to revel in.

Ice Wine

Something of a rarity (the real deal that is), Ice Wine can only happen with the vineyard freezes over. Plus, the grapes must then be pressed from frozen (!). Of course, there are is some cheaper stuff on the market that advertises itself as Ice Wine, but make sure you read your labels carefully. Often produced in frigid climes, such as Canada, Switzerland and Germany, it is delight if you can get your hands on some; and, know that you are having something special.


Served chilled, this is one of the lighter and more refreshing beverages to sip on during the summertime at the end of an al fresco lunch.  Sweet and golden-coloured, sparkling or not, this is wonderful beverage. Pairing exceptionally well with Indian food or spicy dishes is not very high-end and a decent bottle will set you back around $50 US. If you keen to try some at your next dinner be sure to look out for Moscato d’Asti which is more frizzante (fizzy) than sparkling. Light and crisp notes will pair well with fish or salads too, making this wine versatile and easy-going. With hints of peach, pear or nectarine coming thorough, it brightens the mood!

Noble Rot

These wines tends to be more on the richer, sweeter side of the spectrum. Plus, they also are more on the viscous side of things and come packaged in smaller bottles. The funghus botrytis occurs on different fruits and in this case loves the noble rot grape. While, this may not sound appealing, this fungus is desired by winemakers with some of the most celebrated wines in the world – Sauternes, Tokaji, Spätlese-level German Riesling – relying upon this growth to enhance flavours and deepen profiles. So, what does the fungus do? Two things. First, it increases the sweetness. Second, it enhances flavours with sommeliers citing notes of beeswax, ginger and honey. So, there are additional warmer, caramel notes found in noble rot wines affected by botrytis as compared with its fruitier non-botrytis counterparts.

You may have noticed that I have not included any sweets reds or ports as I think these are a whole other category on their own. But, I encourage you all greatly to go out and sample some of these delights at wine bars and restaurants around Dubai.

A few of my favourite places include: Gaucho, Roda Grill, The Agency, Oeno and The Blue Elephant.

Go wild!

Never miss a thing, Subscribe to our newsletter!

You may also read!


3 Ways Restaurants Use Photography to Keep Diners Wanting More

With so many restaurants opening left, right and center, it can be challenging to know how


6 Best Items to Try in a Contemporary Japanese Restaurant

Itadakimasu! The Japanese usually say this before they eat. It is one of their unique customs


6 Insider Tips to Really Enjoy Your Steak house Restaurant Experience

A scrumptious slab of meat cooked to your liking. A variety of delectable appetizers and side


2 commentsOn Dessert Wines vs. Fortified Wines: Know Your Stuff

Leave a reply:

Your email address will not be published.

Mobile Sliding Menu