Americans have a notorious sweet tooth. We crave doughnuts, candy bars and nearly every conceivable flavor of ice cream. So it’s surprising we have pretty much ignored dessert wines. These sweet wines have a higher residual sugar after fermentation than “dry” wines. When integrated with other distinct flavors and appropriate acidity for balance, the best sweet wines move beyond cloying and syrupy to rich and profound. Or just simply delightful and refreshing.
Identical to their dry cousins, sweet wines come in many distinct styles with myriad different flavor profiles. Produced in nearly every winemaking region, they easily match up with foods that either compliment or contrast with their sweetness, flavors and texture, which means they don’t have to be limited to the dessert course.
A classic example is serving Sauternes with foie gras where the citrus and honey flavors pair wonderfully with the fatty liver flavors. The Italian sweet wine, Vin Santo, is a perfect foil for slightly bitter almond cookies. Alsatian late-harvest gewuerztraminers are great with chocolate, vintage ports are delicious with Stilton blue cheese and German ice wines are wonderful with fruit dishes. Or, they can simply substitute for dessert itself since sipping a complex dessert wine rather than consuming a chunk of cheesecake is often a more interesting way to conclude a fine meal, and likely less caloric. Just avoid pairing sweet wines with very cold foods like sherbet that will numb the mouth and mute the flavors.
Sweet wines are fashioned with many techniques. Some grapes naturally develop high sugar content especially if harvested late when the fruit has become overripe. The high sugar is more than the yeasts can convert into alcohol during fermentation resulting in a sweeter wine. Fortified wines are created by adding neutral alcohol in the form of grape spirits to create Port, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and Banyuls, while Moscatel is made by adding sweet sherry. The increase in alcohol kills off the yeasts to stop fermentation while the sugar content is still high. Ice wine, or Eiswein, is made by pressing frozen grapes to obtain juice concentrated with sugar and other flavors. And some of the world’s most desired dessert wines are the result of an infection by a favorable fungus, Botrytis cinerea, which slightly desiccates the grapes while imparting a distinctive honeylike flavor.
A good place to begin exploring sweeter wines is also one of my favorite ways to welcome dinner guests. Moscato d’Asti is a refreshingly light, gently effervescent and low-alcohol sweet wine created from moscato bianco grapes in Italy’s northwest Piedmont region. Its lovely aromas, complex flavors and balanced acidity make it a great aperitif or it can stand alone as a marvelous way to end a meal. Moscato d’Asti also pairs beautifully with apricot tarts and other fruit pastries as well as Italian desserts including panna cotta and zabaglione. Be sure to serve it chilled and within a few years of the vintage on the label.
A top example is the Saracco Moscato d’Asti 2008. Paolo Saracco has been called maestro” for his wines and this most recent release is further proof of his artistry. It is a graceful, elegant sweet wine with floral, peach and pear scents that lead into green apple, apricot and pear with citrus acidity and a brisk finish.
Extraordinary dessert wines are created in Sauternes and Barsac located in the southern Graves region of Bordeaux, France. Semillon is the predominant grape varietal although Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are also used in these highly collectable wines that can cost several hundred dollars for just a half-bottle. Less expensive but frequently nearly as tasty are the sweet wines made in the surrounding regions of Monbazillac and Loupiac.
Producing these wines is a labor-intensive process requiring multiple passes along the vines to hand-select individual grapes exhibiting the appropriate amount of ripeness and Botrytis. The balanced acidity found in the best versions permits these wines to age for decades during which their color darkens and their flavors become richer. The more recent versions are sweeter because of riper harvests and can be enjoyed now or put away to appreciate many years in the future.
The delicious, full-bodied Chateau Climens Sauterne 2006 has honeyed pineapple and citrus flavors while the Chateau Coutet (pronounced koo-tet) Sauterne 2006 is creamier with vanilla and peach notes along with its balanced sweetness. Very complex is the Chateau Suduiraut (pronounced soo-doo-row) Sauterne 2006 with tropical fruit, pineapple and orange flavors and the Chateau Guiraud Sauterne 2006 has gorgeous lemon custard aromas and flavors along with its honey, pineapple and peach notes. Spicier is the Chateau La Tour Blanche 2006 with deep lemon and marmalade flavors.
Next week, we’ll explore the famed sweet wines from Hungary, Portugal, California and Canada. But for now, enjoy these sweet wines to kick off a sweet start to the holiday season.