Sweet dessert wines are perfect gifts for wine lovers.
By Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week November 25, 2004
There are many ways to choose a wine to give as a gift. Some people pick based upon the appearance of the label, thinking that a cute animal or pretty picture somehow translates into a drinkable wine. Others select wines that they have previously tasted while some choose based solely on the price, or color, or country of origin. This results in chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet as the most commonly selected gifts.
That leaves a large number of superb wines off of most gift lists. Outstanding wines are being made from many other varieties of grapes and in many different styles. One needs a sense of adventure to fully appreciate the excellent wines being made in the less familiar places.
Dessert wines are an example of an underappreciated style that also happens to be an excellent gift idea. These wines taste sweet because of a higher amount of residual sugar, but they are more than just “sweet wines.” The best have a complexity of flavors and aromas that make them some of the most desirable wines in the world. In fact, a few dessert wines have price tags of hundreds of dollars for a half bottle but many outstanding examples can be found that are very affordable. They are surprisingly versatile and can be served alone after a meal or to complement a dessert. And there are few wines that taste as good in front of a fire with someone you love.
Dessert wines are made by concentrating the flavors and sugar content of a wine. This is accomplished by either removing the water via air drying, by allowing the grapes to freeze and then removing the ice or by allowing a fungus known as “noble rot” to attack the grapes which desiccates as well as imparts a honey flavor to the grapes. Another method is to add alcohol to the fermenting grapes to stop the conversion of sugar to alcohol. A third way to create a dessert wine is by adding portions of wines from previous vintages together.
A favorite is Moscato d’Asti which is a low alcohol, sweet sparkling wine that can also be served as an aperitif. An example is Marco Negri Moscato d’Asti “Marsilio” 2003 with peach and mild grapefruit and lemon flavors. In the same style is Tualatin Estate Semi-Sparkling Muscat 2000 produced in Oregon. It is mouth-filling with a mild nuttiness and clove taste and gorgeously long finish. Both are best drunk chilled and young and would work well with a fruit dessert.
Produced in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is Banyuls a fortified wine much like Port that comes in various different styles. Many consider Banyuls to be a natural accompaniment to chocolate. An example of the Rimage style is Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage 2002 a rich, full-bodied wine that is made with little contact with oxygen to preserve the plum and prune flavors. Also from Roussillion is Rivesaltes Mas Cristine 1999 made from Grenache grapes. It has beautiful cream and caramel flavors with a hint of spice and a buttery finish.
From Italy, the Librandi Val de Neto Le Passule Vino Passito 2002 is made from 100 % Mantonico grapes which were air dried for 15 days prior to fermentation. Considered a “wine for meditation,” it is full-bodied with raisin and apricot flavors and a nice smooth finish. Produced in the Tuscany region is Selvapiana Vin Santo del Chianti Rufina 1998 which has nut and orange flavors with mild honey notes and a full-body.
The Israeli wine industry is growing rapidly, with new wineries opening almost every two weeks. There are a number of very good Israeli dessert wines including Yarden Heights Dessert Wine 2000 that has flavors of oranges, dried fruits and a touch of spiciness. Another example is the Golan Heights Winery “Heightswine” 2002 made from frozen Gewürztraminer grapes. It has a medium body and nice acidity to balance the apricot, honey and mild spice flavors.
Port is another favorite dessert wine. Produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal, true Port is made by allowing about half of the grape sugar to be converted into alcohol before adding brandy which instantly stops the fermentation process. Port-like wines are also being produced in other countries and from a variety of different grapes. d’Arenberg McLaren Vale Shiraz Port 2001 is produced in Australia and has wonderful chocolate and coffee flavors in a full-bodied, solid style that should age well. From the Stellenbosch region of South Africa KWV produces a “Full Tawny” and “Full Ruby” port. Their KWV Late Bottled Vintage Port 1990 is very good. Smoother and softer than other vintage ports, it has a slight mocha flavor. A rare treat is the California made Bogle Petite Sirah Port 2002 which has very nice blackberry, plum and chocolate flavors.