How to Store Dessert & Fortified Wines (A Complete Guide)


Dessert wines are a dream come true for anyone who loves a little sweetness. The truth is that properly storing dessert wines is not as complicated as many seem to think. Let’s take a look at the best ways to store dessert and fortified wines for both longevity and peak flavor. 

Dessert wines are best stored at 55° F, in humidity levels around 70%, away from damaging sunlight, lying flat with the labels facing up. Unopened bottles of dessert wine are best stored under 5 months and are made to drink right away.

In the world of wine, dessert wine is a sweet wine that is served as an accompaniment to dessert, or it can even be the dessert. According to the United States wine industry, however, a dessert wine is any wine that contains over 14% alcohol.

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Different Types of Dessert Wines

There are dessert wines with varying degrees of sweetness and hundreds of different types, but most will fall into five main categories:

Sparkling Dessert Wine

The interesting thing about sparkling dessert wine is that it tastes less sweet than it actually is. The high acidity and carbonation are the reasons for this. When shopping for sparkling dessert wines and checking out the labels, keep these words in mind:

  1. Demi-sec: off-dry (French)
  2. Amabile: slightly sweet (Italian)
  3. Semi Secco: off-dry (Italian)
  4. Doux: sweet (French)
  5. Dolce/Dulce: sweet (Italian/Spanish)
  6. Moelleux: sweet (French)

Storage of sparkling dessert wine: the high sugar content will ensure that these wines will be drinkable from two to three weeks after opening when kept in the kitchen refrigerator.

For a complete guide on storing and serving sparkling wines the right way, please check out this helpful article I wrote.

Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine

Refreshingly sweet and goes great with fruit-based desserts.

Storage of lightly sweet dessert wine: As mentioned above, the wines will be fine in the kitchen refrigerator for up to three weeks, but it is always important to remember that after 5 days, it’s possible that the flavor profile may be compromised.

Richly Sweet Dessert Wine

In terms of wine storage, it is important to understand how richly sweet dessert wines are made. Because they are made with the highest quality grapes in an unfortified style, many of these wines can age 50+ years. The sweetness and acidity of these grapes are what preserve their fresh flavor.

Probably the most well-known of these wines are made in styles you may have heard of – but are not quite sure about. Below some of these styles are explained in more detail.

  1. Late Harvest: Late Harvest means the grapes hang on the vine longer in the season. They become sweeter and more raisin-like, making their sweetness very concentrated. Any grape left on the vine can be used for late harvest wines.
  2. Noble Rot: Noble rot is a type of spore called Botrytis cinerea that eats fruits and vegetables. While this doesn’t sound very appetizing, it adds unique flavors of ginger, saffron, and honey to sweet wines.
  3. Ice Wine (Eiswein): True ice wine is very rare and expensive. It can only be made when a vineyard freezes. Also, ice wine must be harvested and pressed while grapes are still frozen. Many are made in Canada.

Storage of richly sweet dessert wines: Due to the specialized mold mentioned above, these wines have been oxygenated during production and will last between one and three months in a kitchen refrigerator after opening.

Sweet Red Wine

Except for the cheap commercially produced sweet reds, most are on the decline. However, some still remain popular and interesting.

  1. Lambrusco: A bubbly wine made in sweet and dry styles with a yeasty undertone with flavors of blueberry and raspberry.
  2. Brachetto d’ Acqui: Made from the Piedmont region of France, this wine is famous for its strawberry and floral aromas.

Storage of sweet red wines: Up to two weeks after opening in the kitchen refrigerator.

Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are made when grape brandy is added to a wine and can either be dry or sweet. Most fortified wines are higher in alcohol content (17-20%).

Storage of fortified wines: A longer shelf life of three to four weeks after they are opened can be enjoyed because of this high alcohol content (stored in the refrigerator).

Storing Dessert Wine Unopened

Dessert wine must be stored properly like any other type of wine.

Temperature range

The biggest enemy of wine in terms of storage is heat. Temperatures higher than 70° F will age wine more quickly than is desired. If it gets any hotter than that, your wine will be “cooked” which renders the flavors flat and dull. The ideal temperature range is between 45° F and 65° F although this is not an exact science. 55° F is often said to be the perfect temperature.

Humidity

There is a theory that dry air will dry out the corks in your dessert wine, letting air into the bottle and spoiling the wine. While this does happen, unless you live in a desert area or in arctic conditions, chances are it won’t happen to you. Anywhere between 50-80% humidity is considered safe.

Placing a pan of water in your storage area can improve conditions. On the other hand, extremely damp conditions can promote mold. While this won’t affect properly sealed wines, it will destroy the labels. In this case, a dehumidifier will be a good option to fix that problem.

Bottle Orientation

The angle at which you place the bottle in storage can have an effect on its shelf life. When air gets into the bottle it can negatively affect the flavor, and make the wine lose its freshness.

When the liquid is up against the cork it is more difficult for air to penetrate the cork. It is recommended that you store the dessert wine either semi-horizontally or at a 45° angle with the cork facing the ground. This will ensure that the wine is in constant contact with the cork and will prevent air from seeping in over a period of time.

Tips for horizontal storingthe riddling rack

Some may enjoy the history and the “conversation piece” nature of a riddling rack in order to keep the bottles stored at the perfect angle. The riddling rack was invented in the early 1800s by Veuve Clicquot Champagne house as a way to hold bottles of wine in the process of making sparkling wine.

The process of “riddling” was a way to rotate the bottles from horizontal to vertical over a period of days, working the sediment to the bottle neck to make it easier to remove when that time came. (This process is called disgorgement)

The racks are great looking and there are free-standing versions as well as ones that can be mounted to a wall. They can be quite a statement piece, and a great way to keep the bottle stored in a horizontal position. (Some can hold the wine bottle in a variety of positions depending on how you tilt them).

Avoiding Light

Always keep any bottle of wine out of direct light, especially sunlight. The sun’s UV rays can degrade and prematurely age a dessert wine. Many wine bottles are made of dark glass that helps to keep light out. Ideally, a bottle of dessert wine will be stored in dark or dimly lit conditions. This is the reason for the popularity of wine cellars. Since most of us don’t have access to a wine cellar, a dark closet will work just as well.

Kitchen Fridge

Keeping your dessert wines in your household kitchen refrigerator is fine but only for a few months. A longer amount of time in the refrigerator is not recommended. The average refrigerator falls below 45° F to safely store perishable foods so more than several months at this temperature is not ideal.

Also, make sure your dessert wine doesn’t have a chance to freeze (cooling it in the freezer and then forgetting it or storing in an unheated garage in winter). When the liquid starts to freeze, it can expand enough to push the cork out.

Vibration

There are also theories that vibration can damage dessert wine in the long term by speeding up some of the chemical reactions in the wine. However, unless you live by a train station or a venue that constantly plays loud music, your wine should be fine while it is being stored. While there are some wine collectors who worry that the vibrations emitted by electrical appliances, there is no data to support this.

The bigger concern with vibrations is they can stir up sediments that should settle at the bottom of your dessert wine bottle. This can make removing sediment much harder when it comes time to serve.

How Much to Invest in Wine Storage

It’s helpful to remember that most wines are to be enjoyed within a few years of release. If you are looking to invest in dessert wines that you want to mature, you should probably invest in professional-grade storage.

A good question to ask is, how much did I spend in the last year on wine? If a $1,000 cooling unit represents less than 25 percent of your annual wine-buying budget, then you may want to think about investing in a professional-grade wine storage unit. There are some inexpensive systems for small spaces, but in most cases, a standalone cooling unit specifically designed for wine can get expensive.

Of course, this varies depending on the features you want. More expensive units may have multiple temperature zones, which is nice if you want to keep your reds at one temperature and your whites at a cooler one. Humidity controls are also helpful. Finding a quieter unit may cost more, and as with anything you buy, the quality of the materials will vary with the price (for example, aluminum shelves versus plastics ones).

How Long Should Dessert Wines be Stored?

Dessert wines that can be stored long and short term – As mentioned above, dessert wines can be stored (unopened) in the kitchen refrigerator for a few months. After that, the temperature will actually be too cold for long-term storage, so a wine refrigerator should be used.

Your wine storage experience will be better when applying the following concept:  More important than worrying about getting the perfect 55° F as mentioned above, is avoiding strong fluctuations or temperature swings. Extreme or frequent temperature swings are bad for your dessert wine. To this point, it is not a good idea to re-store your dessert wine after it has been chilled (or “un” chilled). Try for consistency in the storage temperature of the wine.

Storing Dessert Wines After Opening

The sweeter the dessert wine, the longer it will last. As an example, a sweet Muscat dessert wine can last 5-10 years (unopened) and then 3-4 weeks (opened) in a kitchen refrigerator.

Best practices for making the wine last longer: Many people use vacuum pumps and special stoppers to make their wine last longer. Most believe that the seal that is formed and the air that is removed sufficiently from the headspace is the ticket to getting a perfect “leftover” wine. However, some wine experts agree that as you are pumping that air out, you are also taking out some of the lovely aromatics, resulting in a wine that could taste flat the next day.

How long the wine can be kept after opening: Depending on the grape variety and method of production, an open bottle of dessert wine should last two to four weeks. Two to three weeks will be the average answer. However, as the wine gets sweeter, (more sugar content and more alcohol content) – three to four weeks is more of a possibility.  

Tools to help prolong the wine: Besides refrigerating opened wine, using an inert gas like argon is a way to give your dessert wine extra life. Argon is an inert, non-toxic gas. It is denser than oxygen and is present in one percent of the air we breathe. It is a preservative of organic materials including wine.

Because argon is heavier than oxygen, it can act as a protective layer for wine, preventing the very reactive oxygen from interacting with the wine. Winemakers sometimes use argon as a preservative for wines in storage and it is the gas used by the popular Coravin wine-preservation system. Another idea for prolonging the wine is transferring it to a smaller bottle (after drinking some of it) to limit its oxygen exposure.

Should You Aerate Dessert Wine?

As a general rule, many red wines and some white wines need to be aerated. In wine terms, this just means the wine needs to breathe. Exposing wines to air/oxygen prior to drinking opens up flavors and enhances your overall drinking experience.

Decanting is mostly a synonym for aerating – but an actual wine decanter is used to expose the wine to air in this process. A decanter can be a fancy and simple way to get air to the wine. (Note: Aged red wines with a lot of sediment – particles that consist of various elements occurring in the wine over time – need decanting in order to remove the sediment).

Port wine is a particular dessert wine that needs to be aerated. Vintage ports fall into the category of dessert wines that have had brandy added to them in order to preserve the wine. There are different types of port categorized by alcohol content and by the aging method.

Some vintage ports have the distinction of being aged for 20+ years. In this case, the wine has more than likely built-up sediment and would definitely benefit from decanting. So as a rule of thumb, older dessert wines that have been in the bottle for many years can benefit from some aerating and those with visible sediment at the bottom of the bottle will need to be decanted.

For a complete guide on how to store port wine the right way, you really need to check out this helpful article I wrote. As with all wines, sweet wines that are fairly young will need nothing more than to “open up” which can happen by simply pouring the wine into the glass, or even opening the bottle and letting it sit for 15 – 20 minutes.

Dessert wines that probably don’t need decanting are those made from grapes such as pinot noir, lighter red zinfandels, and any that are light in body.

Sweet dessert wines that are more tannic (tannin can be a bitter astringent in wines that are young and haven’t had time to soften with age) will need the chance to breathe. For example, the dessert wines made from cabernet sauvignon (bold reds) will need more time to breathe. An hour is usually enough time to soften the tannins and allow a red robust dessert wine to be enjoyed.

References for Article:

5 Main Types of Dessert Wine: Wine Folly
Health Effects of Argon Gas: Wine Spectator
Sweet Wine: Wines.com

Susan Connolly

Susan is a wine consultant in the business for 15+ years working in all aspects of the business including: as a wine wholesaler for a large corporation representing wineries large and small, a go-between working directly with winemakers and multi-generation wine families, selling small boutique wines to retail as well as restaurants, hotels, and other venues, conducting wine dinners and writing wine lists for restaurants, and teaching wine education classes at a local university including Wine 101, Wines around the World, Food and Wine, Champagne for the holidays, among others.

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