There’s an unspoken misconception that wine, a drink made by fermenting grape juice, isn’t meant to be sweet. While sweet bottles made up the majority of American wine production as recently as a half-century ago, the shift toward dry wines modeled after their "classic" European forebears was fairly complete by the 1980s and hasn't retreated since. The truth, however, is that wine comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors—including sweet.
Even more, those who think they don’t like sweet wine are missing out on exceptional bottles. There are myriad winemakers who specialize in making delicious sweet wines that you can pair with savory dishes, share with your date on a romantic evening, or even stand in for a birthday cake.
With decadent notes of plum and chocolate, Dal Forno Romano Vigna Seré Veneto Passito Rosso is our top choice when it comes to sweet wines.
Like any other wine, the choices are overwhelming, so here are the best sweet wines that prove that they're just another part of the wine family.
Best Overall: Dal Forno Romano Vigna Seré Veneto Passito Rosso
Region: Veneto, Italy | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Plum, Tobacco, Chocolate
From vineyards rooted in chalky-clay soils outside the town of Tregnago, about an hour and a half west of Venice, Italy, comes this ultra-rare passito from Dal Forno. In fact, in three decades, the wine has only been produced six times. Made in the tiniest of quantities, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one of the most profound sweet wines you’ll ever encounter.
Corvina grapes are used to make the bulk of this wine, along with 15% rondinella, 20% croatina, and 10% oseleta that are then aged for 36 months in oak. The result is rich and decadent, with sweet red-berry fruit, red licorice, crushed stones, and brown sugar-coated candied violets. All this is framed by juicy and brisk acidity, giving freshness to this wine that defies gravity.
Best Under $20: Tobin James Zinfandel Late Harvest
Region: Paso Robles, Calif. | ABV: 17% | Tasting Notes: Raisin, Date, Spice
Winemakers Tobin James and Lance Silver have honed in on the style of the rich vineyards of Paso Robles, Calif. with this sweet and spicy zinfandel. Their tasting room is something of a Paso Robles hub for seekers of quality wine. That jovial spirit is captured in this bottle.
There are notes of plum, blueberry, dark chocolate, raisin, and spice. This wine is not too sweet, with vibrant acidity and gentle tannins. This pairs well with barbecue chicken wings or General Tso’s chicken.
Best Organic: Philip Togni Ca' Togni Sweet Red
Region: Paso Robles, Calif. | ABV: 15% | Tasting Notes: Prune, Fig, Spiced Tea
Winemaker Philip Togni is a legend in the field, and this organic dessert wine is produced from his own harvest of rare and fully ripened black hamburg grapes. This bottle is inspired by constantia, the famed South African dessert wine, but Togni gives it his own Napa Valley spin for a truly exquisite tasting experience.
Floral aromas flood the nose with prune, fig, and black cherry following suit. Chocolate and spiced tea notes on the palate are supported by a kiss of acidity. The finish lingers like a chatty houseguest, but in a good way.
Related: The Best Sweet Wines
Best Splurge: Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port Capela 2017
Region: Douro, Portugal | ABV: 20% | Tasting Notes: Black tea, Quince, Licorice, Mahogany
Port, the sweet fortified wine that’s long been the standard-bearer of the Portuguese wine industry, comes in many styles—including some meant to be consumed young and others intended for prolonged aging. Hailing from a winery that dates back to the mid-1500s, the 2017 Capela from Quinta de Vesuvio is a vintage port that fits squarely into the latter category: many industry experts recommend holding off on cracking open this bottle until 2030, and others predict that it will continue to improve for an additional two or three decades after that.
Clearly, this isn’t a maybe-we’ll-drink-it-this-Tuesday bottle, but those with a generation’s worth of patience will be rewarded with gorgeous aromas of black tea, lavender, blueberry, and quince. The palate is jam-packed with attractive notes of berry, licorice, and mahogany that will only become more elegant with additional years of aging. Make a memo to yourself to pair this well-structured stunner with rich meats and cheeses when you open it in ten years or more.
Best Italian: Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto
Region: Piemonte, Italy | ABV: 7% | Tasting Notes: Raspberry, Strawberry, Rose petal
From Piemonte's Acqui region comes this elegant and romantic sparkling red from Banfi’s award-winning lineup. Though Banfi’s innovations in clonal research and the accolades of their longtime winemaker Rudy Buratti are impressive, we especially love this bottle's candy red color.
Still, don’t let its looks distract you from the excellent aromatics of raspberry, cranberry, chocolate, and rose petal. Dry with scintillating acidity, serve this chilled lest you serve it incorrectly.
Related: The Best Italian Wines
Best German: Gerd Anselmann Pfalz Dornfelder
Region: Pfalz, Germany | ABV: 11.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Vanilla, Spice
The dark-skinned dornfelder variety is known for being a distinctively German grape that can reach its full potential in the advantageously mild climate of the country’s south-western Pfalz region (affectionately known as the “Tuscany of Germany”). The Anselmann estate that operates in this region happens to be one of the best around and this bottle is only one of the reasons why.
Deep red in color, the floral aromas are bolstered by dollops of cherry, raspberry, dark fruit, vanilla, and spice. This is a medium-bodied wine with a rich texture, mildly acidic, and truth be told, on the drier side of sweet.
Best Greek: Kourtaki Mavrodaphne of Patras
Region: Peloponnese, Greece | ABV: 15% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Fig, Molasses
The Greeks are famous for inventing dramatic theater, so it only makes sense that they’d be able to produce such a dramatic wine full of sweet pathos. The Kourtakis family founded their winery back in 1895 and continues to be one of Greece’s most prominent winemakers.
Reminiscent of a fine port, this bottle is heavy on fig, raisin, and brown sugar. This also has a profound chocolate note which could help explain why it pairs so well with actual chocolate.
Related: The Best Wine Aerators
Best South African: Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz
Region: Paarl, South Africa | ABV: 12% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Blueberry, Chocolate
As their name might suggest, Jam Jar concocted this sweet shiraz with the direct aim of creating a quality sweet red. The shiraz fruit thrives in hot weather which makes their vineyards in South Africa’s Western Cape an ideal setting for proper grape-growing. As a bonus, this sweet wine has no added sugar.
This is a veritable medley of dark and red berries: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, and chocolate, which is not a berry but becomes an honorary berry in this wine. Bold, tannic, and fairly acidic, this makes a complimentary wine with savory steaks and pork dishes.
Best California: San Antonio Cardinale Red Blend
Region: Central Coast, Calif. | ABV: 12% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Plum, Silky
With roots in northern Italy, California’s San Antonio Winery has been in operation by the Riboli family for over four generations. From grapes grown in the dry and warm climate of their Paso Robles appellation, this Cardinale red blend is about as sweet as a wine can get.
This is medium-bodied with notes of cherry and plum. Sweet like marmalade, this wine is smooth and reminiscent of a moscato. It is bold and bright with a short and pleasant finish.
Related: The Best Red Wines
Best Semi-Sweet: Botticello Dolce Rosso Lambrusco
Region: Emilia-Romagna, Italy | ABV: 8% | Tasting Notes: Strawberry, Floral, Cherry
As its name suggests, this wine from Botticello is a bonafide Italian doozy. And this one’s a northern Italian doozy, from the Emilia-Romagna region where sparkling red lambrusco is one of their specialties. Serve it chilled and alongside sliced prosciutto.
You’ll go “ooh” when it lands on your tongue and “ahh” as you gulp it down. Strawberry, raspberry, and floral aromas mingle with a smooth cherry flavor. Everything about this wine is pleasantly mild: mild tannins, mild acidity, mild sweetness, and a mild fizz. Despite the rampant mildness, this wine is nothing short of exceptional.
For a one-of-a-kind sweet red wine experience, the sublime Dal Forno Romano Vigna Seré Veneto Passito Rosso (view on Wine.com) offers a beautiful example of a classic and rare style. For a more accessible journey into the realm of sweet red wines, seek out the Philip Togni Ca' Togni Sweet Red (view on Drizly) and enjoy some organic California elegance at an approachable price point.
Are sweet wines made by adding sugar to dry wine?
While certain cheaper bottlings may achieve their sweetness through the addition of sugar to finished wine, this is generally not a classic production technique—and none of the bottles featured in this lineup employ this method. A notable exception is Champagne (of which there are sweet examples such as sec and doux), which attain their sweetness through the addition of a dosage of sugar to aid in secondary fermentation. Generally, though, sweet wines rely on the natural sugars in the grapes themselves to achieve their final sweetness.
What is a fortified wine?
Wine attains its alcohol through fermentation, the process by which yeast turns sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. A "fortified" wine is a style of wine in which spirit (typically either grape brandy or neutral grain spirit) is added to wine—either once fermentation is done, and the wine is finished, or before fermentation has been completed. If the latter method is used, and there's still some unfermented sugar left in the juice, the spirit will kill the yeast and halt fermentation, resulting in a higher-alcohol wine with elevated sweetness levels. Classic examples of sweet fortified wine include port, sweet vermouth, and certain styles of sherry.
Are all sweet red wines dessert wines?
While richer styles of sweet red wine such as port and passito are typically enjoyed with dessert (or, for that matter, as dessert), there are other styles in this roundup, such as lambrusco and brachetto d'acqui, which really shine as an aperitivo before dinner or even as an accompaniment to the meal itself.
Why trust Liquor.com?
This roundup was edited by Jesse Porter, who's worked in the beverage programs of restaurants featuring the cuisines of Italy and of Germany—two nations which could both make cases for having the most highly-regarded reputations for sweet wine in the world (with a humble excusez-moi to France).
Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for over a decade, regularly tasting wines from around the globe. Cristaldi was named a "Wine Prophet" by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.
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