Pedro Ximénez, Málaga, and moscatel are the three main sweet wines of Spain, but there are many, many others. Together they are an too-often-overlooked treasure in the world of wine. The vinos dulces of Spain are some of my favorite wines of all.
Pedro Ximénez is the most famous of Spanish sweet wines. Pedro Ximénez (usually) comes from Jerez (it is considered a type of sherry) or Montilla-Moriles. Unfortunately, as with many famous things, it can be difficult to find a really good Pedro Ximénez, and when you do it is almost always pricey.
At its best, Pedro Ximénez can be incredibly rich and complex--with all sorts of candied fruit and herb notes--but most of the ordinary stuff (such as the Osborne pictured above) tastes simply of raisins and, to me, is rarely worth the $20-and-up price.
Wine writers often succumb to the cliché of comparing Pedro Ximénez to blackstrap and mention that it can be served over ice cream. The truth is that Pedro Ximénez, while thick, is never anywhere near the consistency of molasses, and believe me, if you ever have a good glass of this stuff, the last thing you will want to do is pour it over ice cream. The trick, again, is finding a good Pedro Ximénez, which is not easy, even in Spain. The best we've ever had was in Córdoba--Montilla-Moriles, a region that specializes in Pedro Ximénez. Even there it was far from cheap, but it was a truly amazing wine. I will never forget it.
Málaga is not so well known as Pedro Ximénez, but it can be just as good, and it is nearly always a better bargain. It is everything that Pedro Ximénez should be (but often isn't) at a fraction of the price. Even brands of Málaga carried in Spanish supermarkets, such as the roughly-named Quitapenas ("takes your cares away"), are quite good, and prices start at just seven or eight euros a bottle. A steal.
Málaga is often made with the Pedro Ximénez grape and it can be put through a barrel system much like sherry, but it may be made from other grapes, as well as other ingredients (the reduced juices of other grapes), which makes it a different style of wine. In my opinion Málaga is always worth trying.
Moscatel is a sweet wine you will find in just about every neighborhood bar in Spain. Like Pedro Ximénez and Málaga, it is a traditional, fortified wine (or vino generoso), but it's lighter, usually a shade of gold in color. (Please do not confuse traditional moscatel with the new "moscatos" Spain has recently begun to export to compete in the world-wine moscato market: the bottle should say "moscatel," never moscato.) Though sweet, moscatel can have a twang of acidity, like a Madeira, and it may be served like some madeiras, with savory foods.
In the picture above, taken at the old-school restaurant and bar Lhardy (one of my favorite places to go in Madrid), moscatel (the gold-colored wine) and Portuguese Madeira (the dark one) are served with a cup of rich consomé and little lettuce sandwiches--a beautiful combination.
There are many other sweet wines in Spain. Many little towns will have their own recipe, and most of the time you have to search out the town itself to try them. There are exceptions. The Madrid bar called El Anciano Rey de los Vinos serves a vino dulce de Tomelloso, an old fashioned sweet wine from the village of that name.
Obviously, Spanish sweet wines are perfect for dessert. (It is often said that a glass of Pedro Ximénez is a dessert in itself). But traditionally these sweet wines are also enjoyed at the merienda--the evening snack, around six p.m. or so--often with old-fashioned Spanish pastries like pestiños.