Dessert wines, though rarely served, can be a great ending to any special dinner. There are a wide variety of these wines from all over the world, offering a sufficiently wide palette of experiences that can work well as a memorable closure to any meal. Many people say that they don’t like dessert wines because they (the wines) are just too sweet. Often these are some of the same people that chug Coke like it was going out of style.
The thing to remember is that, just as the sweetness of a soft drink is somewhat mitigated by the acidity of its carbonation, a good dessert wine’s sweetness will be balanced by its acidity, with the added bonus of some delicious fruit flavors. Since it has been customary for centuries to end a meal with something sweet on the plate, why not something sweet in the glass as well? With that thought in mind, let’s look at some great choices for dessert wines.
One of my favorites, and a real bargain, is Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. This is a fortified wine from the Rhône region in France, made from the Muscat de Frontignan grape. It is “fortified” because during fermentation, before all of the sugar is turned into alcohol, the winemaker adds a little neutral spirit (96 proof alcohol), which stops the fermentation process. This accomplishes two things. First, the wine is sweeter than if the fermentation had run its course and turned all of the sugar into alcohol (as in the making of dry wines), and second, the wine is more alcoholic, typically between 15 and 18 percent versus about 12 percent for most wines. Domaine de Beaumalric Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2000 ($12, 375 ML) is a great one. It’s an attractive straw yellow, with a beautiful floral, lychcee nut nose. It is wonderfully mouth filling, clean, honeyed and grapey, but not at all cloying or thick. It’s a fantastic match with violet ice cream and fresh berries. It’s also not super sweet, and is easy for non-dessert wine guests to enjoy.
Eiswein is a rare and expensive treat from Germany. The concept here is to pick very ripe (sweet) grapes when frozen on the vine, then press them in such a way as to leave the ice (water) behind, and only vinify the remaining, much sweeter and concentrated juice. An easier variation on this method is to pick non-frozen ripe grapes and then freeze them before pressing. An example of the latter method is Bonny Doon’s Muscat Vin de Glacière 1999 ($17, 375ML). It is very rich, full and creamy in texture. Although sweeter than a lot of dessert wines, it has enough acidity to keep it from becoming cloying, and finishes with a pleasant spiciness. It goes well with warm apple cobbler.
Tokay is Hungary’s great dessert wine. Because it is less well known than in previous centuries, it is one of the best wine values available. Like Sauternes, the great dessert wine from Bordeaux, Tokay is made from Botrytized grapes. These are grapes that have been attacked by Noble Rot, a specific fungus that has the effect of making the grape’s juice unctuously concentrated and intensely sweet, without changing its natural acidity. This can result in some of the best wines in the world. Tokay is unique in its method of production. Most of the grapes are picked before the Noble Rot appears, but the end of the harvest is delayed as long as possible to allow the remaining fruit to reach maximum ripeness and to allow time for the Noble Rot to strike. These Botrytized grapes are picked by hand and taken in containers called Puttony, each holding 25 Kilos of fruit, to be pulverized and added to containers called gönc, each containing 136 Liters of the normal wine. The more Puttonyos added to the gönc, the sweeter and richer the resulting wine. The number added (three to six) is noted on the label. The wine is then aged for a number of years, blended with similar wines, and bottled. I describe this process partly because it is unique, and partly to give people an excuse to say “puttonyos” and “gönc”. A typical example is The Royal Tokaji Wine Company’s Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 1996 ($30, 500ML). It looks like Bourbon and has a very nice, slightly oxidized, coffee-molasses nose. This wine is very rich, complicated and silky, but has an equally strong acid backbone that keeps it focused. It goes well with chocolate and it a great match with warm ginger snaps.
Vin Santo, “wine of the saints”, is a very special wine from Tuscany. Once the grapes, mostly Malvasia and Grechetto are picked, they are laid out on straw mats to dry for up to six months. After the dried grapes are pressed, the must is put into sealed casks that are placed in the winery’s attic to ferment very slowly, more in the summer, less so in the winter, for up to six years. Some are sweet, some dry, but all are reminiscent of sherry, nicely oxidized and amber in color. Brolio Vin Santo 1990 ($20, 375ML) is drier than most. It is golden amber with a warm, slightly oxidized nose. Nutty, with just the right amount of sweetness, it’s the perfect compliment to biscotti.
Probably the world’s most famous dessert wine is Sauternes, from Bordeaux. It is made from botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Between the unreliability of the occurrence of Noble Rot and very low yields, Sauternes can be a very expensive wine. It’s also worth it. A great Sauternes can be the perfect balance of reserve and exuberance, richness and focus. A relative bargain is Château Suduiraut 1999 ($20, 375ML). It’s as good with a vanilla bean crème brûlée at the end of a dinner as it is with seared foie gras at the beginning.