Dessert wines are an under-appreciated treasure.
By Louis Marmon
Gazette Newspapers December 15, 2004
Dessert wines may well be the next American wine craze. It seems only natural that a country that has donut shops and ice cream parlors on nearly every corner will learn eventually to appreciate the wonders of a well-made “stickie.”
It is a mystery why dessert wines are not more popular. They are a great way to end a meal with more flavor and fewer carbohydrates than a slice of cheesecake.
Good dessert wines have a noticeable sweetness balanced by other components, and the best examples have an amazing complexity of flavors. Most are served slightly chilled from half-bottles, or splits, which can serve up to 12 guests. If you are looking for a gift for a wine-lover, a bottle of dessert wine always will be appreciated.
Legend has it that Sauternes were produced because a winery owner told his workers not to pick his grapes until he came back from a trip. By the time he returned, the grapes were infected with a fungus that shriveled them. Despite their appearance, he had the grapes picked anyway, and after tasting the exquisite flavors of the resulting wine, declared that in the future, his grapes would always be picked after the fungus had arrived. This fungus, botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot,” requires specific growing conditions, and the production of Sauternes is very labor intensive.
The 2001 Sauternes have wonderfully balanced, deep flavors that get better with age. They are so good, in fact, it is difficult to delay drinking them.
Outstanding examples are Cht. Rieussec, Cht. Suduiraut, Cht. Guiraud, Cht. Callou and the less costly but also very good Cht. Gravas. A less expensive example from France is Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois NV, produced by Les Vignerons de Septimanie, which has apricot and butterscotch flavors. Another is Jaboulet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2000, somewhat sweeter and more complex. From Italy, try Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria 2003 that has crisp pineapple, peach and butterscotch flavors with a full finish. In Washington State, Chateau Ste. Michelle has produced an exquisite Riesling Columbia Valley Ice Wine 2002 in which apricot, honey and pineapple flavors are balanced with the perfect amount of acidity and a smooth finish.
Australia has a long history of dessert wine production. The Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Muscat NV, an excellent value-priced example, has coffee, caramel and black cherry notes. The outstanding Yalumba Museum Muscat NV has layers of apricot, coffee and orange flavors with a mild spiciness. The d’Arenberg Noble 2000, made from Riesling grapes from the McLaren Vale, has pear, floral and honey flavors. A lighter styled dessert wine is the Margan Hunter Valley Botrytis Semillon 2003, which has beautiful apricot and honey notes and a nice finish.
Fortified wines are made by adding alcohol during the fermenting process; that instantly stops the conversion of sugar to alcohol. The resulting wines are sweeter and have more alcohol than regular wines. The classic example is Port, which originated in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Several styles and designations of port vary in their flavors and other characteristics.
A Colheita port is made from a single harvest and aged in oak a minimum of seven years. The recently released Smith-Woodhouse Colheita Tawny 1986 is wonderfully smooth with caramel/nutty flavors and a nicely balanced finish. Ports also are made in other countries including Australia. Try the d’Arenberg Nostalgia Rare Tawny NV, which has raisin, citrus and spice notes.