Sulley Muntari conjured up a dramatic last-gasp winner to bag Sunderland’s fourth away win of the season.
It looked like the spoils would be shared after substitute Ivan Klasnic cancelled out Bolo Zenden’s opener just two minutes from time, but Muntari popped up to clinch the points with almost the last kick of the game.
Zenden’s first goal of the season gave Sunderland the lead on the stroke of half-time, but Klasnic levelled before substitute Muntari rolled home the dramatic winner from an acute angle.
The goal inflicted only Bolton’s third home defeat of the season, with Sunderland the only team outside the top four to defeat the Lancashire side on home turf.
The Black Cats also completed a league double over Wanderers for the second successive campaign.
It was a battling performance for a Sunderland team without any recognized strikers and featuring midfielder Stephane Sessegnon ploughing a lone furrow up front.
Indeed the diminutive Beninese winger can claim a fair slice of the credit for the victory, laying on two goals with incisive passes of the highest order.
And the late winner was just the tonic after Bolton looked like they’d snatched a point.
Sunderland headed to the north west looking to pull level with last season’s 44-point haul against a Bolton side who had won their last five straight home games.
It was the hosts who registered the first real chance of the contest and Sunderland were grateful to keeper Simon Mignolet for keeping their opponents out.
The awkward Kevin Davies held off two defenders on the edge of the box and laid a fine ball off into the path of Matt Taylor only for the advancing Mignolet to block brilliantly with his legs.
Swedish striker Johan Elmander then fired a free kick wide, while John Mensah did well to get a sliding challenge in and deflect a Daniel Sturridge shot away from danger after the striker got on the end of a dangerously bouncing ball in the box.
But Sunderland had made a solid start and created their first chance just before the half-hour.
Jack Colback took command in midfield and dissected the home defence with a lovely ball into the path of the onrushing Zenden, whose shot from a tight angle was gathered by Jussi Jaaskelainen down low.
Sunderland survived a real scare six minutes before the break. Steed Malbranque couldn’t clear on the edge of the box and the ball eventually found its way to Sturridge on the right – his curling shot struck Bardsley on the head and looped onto the crossbar.
And there was another nervy moment from the resulting corner as Elmander connected at the front post but headed over from an excellent position.
Bolton continued to threaten in the closing moments of the first period, with Sturridge just unable to net the loose ball under pressure from Anton Ferdinand after Mignolet spilled Taylor’s low drive.
Then came the breakthrough the visitors had been looking for, with just seconds remaining in the first half.
Malbranque knocked a clearance down into the path of Sessegnon, and his incisive through ball sent Zenden racing away.
Roared on by the visiting supporters and with just Jaaskelainen to beat, the Dutchman kept his cool to nip around the keeper and slide the ball into the net from a tight angle for his first goal of the season.
Boosted by a goal with almost the final kick of the half, Sunderland made a bright start to the second period and Jaaskelainen was forced to tip away a low drive from the busy Sessegnon less than two minutes after the restart.
However, Bolton were inches away from getting an equaliser soon afterwards following a textbook break.
Elmander dispossessed Malbranque in the corner to set up a four-on-three with sub Ricardo Gardner driving at the Sunderland defence.
Gardner waited until the last second before playing in the unmarked Sturridge, but his angled shot fizzed just past Mignolet’s right-hand post and wide.
But Bolton remained a threat on the break and only a brilliant block from Phil Bardsley prevented Sturridge from netting after he fired Paul Robinson’s pull-back towards goal. With the ball bobbling invitingly in the box, Chung-Yong Lee could only succeed in blasting over the bar.
With Sunderland looking to play out time, Mignolet came to rescue again with ten minutes to go, spectacularly turning away sub Rodrigo’s blast from the edge of the area.
But it looked like there would be late heartbreak as, with just two minutes to go, Rodrigo crossed from the left and sub Klasnic dispatched a downward header beyond Mignolet.
And the visitors survived a heart-stopping moment in injury time when another Rodrigo cross was met by Davies, whose shot was heading for the top corner before Bardsley somehow got in the way to deflect the ball over the bar.
However, the biggest moment of drama was left right to the last.
There looked to be little on for Sessegnon when he took possession 30 yards from goal, but his through ball down the left for Muntari took the Bolton defence by surprise and the on-loan Inter Milan man somehow managed to squeeze his shot in between the covering Zat Knight and the near post to win it.