How sweet it is!
Most wine lovers, most of the time, enjoy wines that are "dry" (unsweet) because centuries of experience reveal that dry wines marry best with food; and wine, after all, is the ultimate beverage to enjoy with dinner.
But the approach of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the holiday season around the world puts me in mind of sweet wines, the luscious dessert wines that add a delicious finishing touch to a meal and a special luster to any occasion.
Just about every wine-producing region offers one or more sweet wines as part of its vinous tradition, but all the world's dessert wines typically fall into two broad groups: Naturally sweet wines produced from overripe grapes and often affected by the beneficial mold called botrytis cinerea (or Edelfäule or "Noble Rot"); and fortified wines made by adding brandy to wine before its fermentation is complete, halting the process while natural sugar remains, making a wine that's both sweet and strong.
Let's take a quick look at some of the most popular types:
Sauternes, the dessert wine that many consider the greatest of all, is made in the French region of the same name, using Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes left on the vines until they reach a state of rich overripeness and are thoroughly affected by botrytis, the ugly but "noble" mold that punctures the grapeskins and allows water to evaporate, leaving an intense, syrupy juice behind. In the best Sauternes, the grapes are literally selected one by one, hand-picked as each reaches its peak and used to make a luxury wine of great richness and complexity. Chateau d'Yquem is the leading name of the region. Similar wines come from neighboring Barsac, and wineries the world over, from the United States to South Africa and Australia, strive to make similar wines.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) is the approximate German equivalent, most often made from Riesling and primarily in the Rhine and Mosel. According to legend, the first example of this wine was made by accident when an early Holy Roman Emperor (some versions of the story make it Charlemagne himself) was late arriving home from a journey. Without the Emperor's direction, the vineyard workers dared not pick the grapes at the usual harvest time, so they delayed harvest until the Emperor returned to give the word. The result delighted everyone so much that it became the rule. Beerenauslese (BA), similar if not quite as rich, is made from grapes that don't achieve quite the level of sweetness as those used for TBA.
Ice wine, or Eiswein in German, is a somewhat similar wine, with the added nuance that the grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine, then picked and crushed quickly before the ice melts. The removal of additional water from the grapes by freezing results in a sweet wine of extraordinary intensity. Although this process was invented in Germany in ancient times, the wineries of Ontario in Canada are achieving a worldwide reputation for ice wines; they are also made in New York State, and a few California wine makers have experimented with an artificial ice wine made by freezing ripe grapes in commercial freezers.
Port, the great sweet red wine of Oporto, Portugal, is one of the most noble examples of fortified wines. Invented as a way to preserve wine for the long sea voyage to Britain, it has become a beloved world tradition. Vintage Port, the finest style, not only benefits from decades of careful aging but actually requires cellar time to show its best. For earlier enjoyment, the mellow Tawny Ports, aged in wood until their ruby color fades, make an excellent alternative. The Mediterranean basin and environs are home to many other fine fortified wines including Sherry (which may be either sweet or dry), Marsala, Malaga, and Madeira. Similar wines are made around the world, with both California and Australia boasting warming, powerful fortified wines.
We've only scratched the surface and already exceeded the "30 Second" format without having time to speak of Tokaji, the wonderful royal dessert wine of Hungary; Banyuls, the naturally sweet red wine of the Pyrenees that makes an amazing match with chocolate; Vin Santo and the rich Recioto della Valpolicella of Italy, and many more. We'll have to revisit this topic another day.
What's your favorite dessert wine? Tell me about it with a note to email@example.com. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, but I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine. Please feel free to get in touch if you'd like to comment on our topics and tasting notes, suggest a topic for a future bulletin, or just talk about wine.
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A Tasty Tawny
Clear amber-orange, with walnuts and "stone-fruit" aromas, plums and prunes. Warm and strong, sweet stone-fruit flavors with tart acidity to hold the sweetness in balance. Alcoholic heat adds a slightly rough edge, but it's still a good, mellow Port for after-dinner sipping. U.S. importer: Allied Domecq Wines USA, Healdsburg, Calif. (Nov. 19, 1999)
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Vol. 1, No. 44, Nov. 22, 1999