Last week, I wrote about the legendary dessert wines from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, France and the traditional off-dry Moscato d’Asti wines of Italy. But wine growing regions around the world have created unique methods dedicated solely to the art of producing these wines.
For example, Tokaji has been treasured by European monarchs for centuries. Known as the “Wine of Kings and the King of Wines” it was also adored by the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, Voltaire and other luminaries. They are produced in Hungary’s Tokaji-Hegyalja region near the Carpathian Mountains mostly from Furmint grapes, although other varietals are permitted. Furmint starts with a thick skin, but as it matures the skin becomes thinner and translucent. Some of the water in the grape subsequently evaporates, thereby concentrating the sugars and flavors. This process is further enhanced by allowing botrytis to set on the grapes before harvest.
The botrytisized wines are called “Aszu,” from the Hungarian word for “dried.” These highly sought-after wines are created by first crushing the botrytisized grapes into the consistency of dough. The juice from non-botrytisized grapes is placed on top of the dough for up to two days before being drained off into barrels or vats where fermentation is completed over several years. The wines were formerly described by how much dough was used in units of “puttonyos” ranging from three to six. The higher the number, the sweeter the wines with any made with more than six puttonyos called Aszu-Eszencia. Currently the number refers to the wine’s residual sugar.
Profoundly sweet but not syrupy, the characteristic high acidity of Tokaji-Aszu wines keeps everything in check. These are simply some of the world’s greatest sweet wines with intense flavors of honeyed oranges, apricots and other dried fruit. The end of communism brought much needed outside investment to revitalize the Hungarian wine industry. Founded in 1989, the Royal Wine Co. now possesses some of Hungary’s most important vineyards. Their impressive portfolio includes Royal Tokaji Red Label 5 Puttonyos 2003 with decadently rich and slightly spicy candied apricot and honeyed peach flavors.
Andrew and Kim Quady have been making dessert type wines in California since 1975 when they created their first fortified wine in a friend’s cellar. They now offer several remarkably good sweet wines including the spicy, floral Quady Essensia Orange Muscat 2007 with dried apple, orange, peach and honey notes along with the equally tasty fig- and honey-flavored Quady Electra Orange Muscat 2008 with nice citrus acidity and long finish. Their Quady Elysium Black Muscat 2007 is even more aromatic with raspberry and blackberry leading into currants, red plum, vanilla and a hint of pepper at the end.
The weather in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula gets cold enough to create gorgeous ice wines in the more traditional fashion. The grapes are harvested frozen and then hurried to the winery for processing. The Inniskillin Winery made its first ice wine in 1984. Their award-wining 1991 version brought international acclaim to the region and now Niagara dessert wines are considered among the finest in the world.
The Inniskillin Niagara Peninsula Riesling Ice Wine 2007 is an outstanding example with rich sweet peach and apricot flavors beautifully balanced by crisp citrus acidity. Tart apples, honey and apricot predominate in the equally good Inniskillin Niagara Peninsula Vidal Gold Ice Wine 2006. Most ice wines are made from white grapes, but not the Inniskillin Niagara Peninsula Cabernet Franc Ice Wine 2007 that has spicy strawberry and dark fruit notes, bright acidity and a lovely finish that would be delicious with a chocolate dessert. From another Niagara producer is the splendid Jackson-Triggs Niagara Peninsula Vidal Proprietor’s Reserve Ice Wine 2007 with nicely balanced mango, apple and apricot flavors and a lengthy finish.
Port produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley is the best known of the fortified wines. The neutral alcohol spirit known as Aguardente is added to the grapes to stop fermentation while there sugar content remains high and to increase the final alcohol content. Ports are created in two general fashions. Barrel-aged ports slowly oxidize and become more concentrated because of evaporation. The bottle-aged versions are less intense.
Blended from wines barrel aged for several years, tawny ports are lighter in style and color as compared with single-year vintage versions. Established in 1670, Warre’s was the first British port house in Portugal and is still family owned. Their Otima line of tawny ports is designed to demonstrate that port does not have to be relegated to sipping in front of a fireplace on a cold winter’s night.
The very soft Warre’s Otima 10-year-old Tawny Port has a nutty aroma that envelopes the caramel, honey, dried orange and toffee flavors. More complex is the rich and incredibly smooth hazelnut-scented Warre’s Otima 20-year-old Tawny Port with candied fruit, raisin and caramel notes. Both can be enjoyed before, during or after a meal.