How they're made
Great sweet wines are elegant creations that inevitably carry steep price tags. They may be made from perilously late-harvested grapes or from grapes that have been dried before crushing, or by stopping the fermentation and adding alcohol. But whatever the method, the result is a wine that is rich and luscious.
When to have them
Brandy, grappa and port are most often served after the dessert course, while many sweet wines are actually best served after the main meal and before dessert. For as sweet as they are, some dessert wines can be overwhelmed by a very sweet dessert. And besides, such luxuriously complex flavor deserves its own moment. (All of the selections here are half bottles, unless otherwise noted.)
Aqua Perfecta Framboise ($20) California's master fruit distiller, Jörg Rupf, of St. George Spirits, makes no compromises with this raspberry liqueur that is powerful but refined.
2003 Bonny Doon Muscat Vin de Glacière ($17) Randall Grahm follows a unique process in making this wine: putting normally harvested Muscat grapes in the freezer, then pressing their concentrated juice to produce this flamboyant, syrupy wine.
1998 Capezzana Vin Santo di Carmignano Riserva ($50) This Tuscan winery makes Vin Santo the old-fashioned way: drying the grapes on straw mats and aging them at least four years. The result is an amber-gold wine that tastes like fresh-cracked walnuts, honey and melon.
1997 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos ($54/500 ml) This French-backed winery is in the forefront of the great comeback for Hungarian Tokaji. This "6-basket" (puttonyos) version is like a perfume created from honey and apricots.
2001 Domaine de Coyeux Muscat de Beaumes de Venise ($16) The Muscat grape is the workhorse of the dessert-wine world, but Coyeux's intensely flavored, unctuous wine is one of its most sophisticated expressions.
Larressingle Armagnac V.S.O.P. ($42/750 ml) As aficionados know, Armagnac is the king of brandiesand this simply seductive bottling showcases its attractions.
Mumm Napa Cuvée M Nonvintage ($18/750 ml) Soft and exuberantly fruity, this sparkling wine is a domestic answer to off-dry Champagne and a fine match for moderately sweet desserts.
Nardini Mandorla Grappa ($25) Bortolo Nardini practically invented refined grappa in 1779, and his descendants would make him proud with this smooth but impressive 100-proof example.
1999 Château Suduiraut Sauternes ($36) Bordeaux's Sauternes region sets the standard for extravagant sweet whites, like this juicy, lively wine.
Warre's Otima 20 Porto ($40/500 ml)
The label suggests you serve this 20-year-old port chilled, but then you'd lose some of its walnut, raisin and cherry complexity. Bonus: Because it's a tawny port (wood-aged not bottle-aged), it lasts longer once the bottle is opened, so it can be recorked for drinking later, if you have the will power.