While most people respond with a quick "No
thanks!" when we ask if they need any "dessert wines" for their dinner
party, I have found that these create the most excitement and interest when served after a
tasting or wine class. This is probably because to most people, the notion of
"sweet wine" is a wine of poor quality (like the kind alcoholics might drink out
of a bottle "served" in a paper bag). Or perhaps it's because this is
unfamiliar territory to most people and they've experienced enough trauma here trying to
purchase a bottle of red or white wine for a dinner party.
Late harvested, non-fortified golden-colored wines made of Semillon,
Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, these come from a sub-region of Bordeaux in FRANCE.
grapes, in the best vintages, are affected with a mold called "Botrytis
cinerea." The French call it "noble rot." This occurs in
periods of foggy or misty mornings and relatively warm, sunny afternoons. In those
rare "perfect" vintages, this happens regularly and the botrytis affects the
fruit quickly. In most years this takes place more irregularly and the fruit becomes
botrytized here and there, but not uniformly. The best estates comb the vineyard
many times, picking only those grapes which have botrytis. This is a painstaking
process, not to mention the cost. Many wineries cannot afford the crew required for
this harvesting method, so they wait and pick once or twice and hope that's good
It is possible to chaptalise, of course, (add sugar).
If the must has the tremendous sweetness that it should, the wine ferments slowly (it's
quite syrupy) and the alcohol, at about 14% (by volume) kills the yeast and leaves the
rest of the sugar unfermented.
These can age and develop for 20-50 years. While we view these as
"dessert" wines, they also work handsomely served alongside rich foods,
particularly foie gras.
I seem to prefer these chilled, but not ice cold. Sometimes an older bottle shows
a bit more richly when it's been out of the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes.
There's great interest on the part of producers in Alsace to make
late-harvested sweet wines. Some of these are amazingly fine, though, frankly, we've
seen a stampede of disinterest as these tend to start in the $50 range for a full bottle.
Vendange Tardive wines must have a potential alcohol of 12.9% for Riesling
and 14.3% for Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. Sélection de Grains Nobles
wines are made from juice with a potential alcohol of 15.1% for Riesling and 16.4%
for Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.
Best served moderately well-chilled.
Though Sauvignon Blanc is a part of Sauternes and the predominant grape in
a number of Loire Valley wines, it is the Chenin Blanc (also known as Pineau
de la Loire) that shines brightly in making sweet wines in the Loire. Coteaux
du Layon , Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux are
the most prized for sweet wines, though you'll find Vouvray designated as
demi-sec or, even sweeter, moelleux.
Of course, Riesling is, perhaps, the most "noble" white grape
variety and it makes some stunning bottles of wine in Germany. German wine
labels tend to have a few clues as to the contents of the bottle. While the terms Kabinett,
Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese indicate the
level of sweetness of the grapes (listed from lowest to highest), some are misled by these
terms. While Spätlese, for example, literally translated means "late
harvest," this has a different significance: this is what a California
winemaker, for example, would consider the minimum level of sugar at which to harvest
their fruit. It is not really a particularly "late harvest."
Further, "Auslese," which means "selected late harvest" can also be a
very dry wine. The word "TROCKEN" on the label means
"dry." The point here being that not all Spätlese orAuslese
wines are necessarily sweet. Beerenauslese means the grapes are
individually selected, while Trockenbeerenauslese means the grapes are
raisined. In great years the wines, coming from vineyards close to a river (a fog
machine), will have much "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea). The Germans call
this Edelfäule. One item to keep in mind is that the best producers will
arrest the fermentation of their wines. However, many will ferment their Kabinett,
Spätlese and Auslese wines to dryness and then add Süssreserve,
unfermented juice of the same "quality level" to make their wines sweet.
This explains, perhaps, why there are some Auslese wines of very high cost and others of
suspiciously low pricing.
One other term for sweet wines: Eiswein. These are made from
fruit left hanging on the vine, sometimes into January! The grapes are collected at
an obscenely early hour of the morning when they are frozen. Since the water content
of these berries is frozen, the fruit, when crushed, yields but the essence of the grape.
These must be, at least, "Beerenauslese sweet" The law,
today, prohibits labeling an Eiswein with the terms Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese
as was once permitted. Get your checkbook ready.
Best served moderately well-chilled.
The Piemontese wineries near Asti often make marvelous, fizzy, 5.5%
alcohol sweet wines of Muscat. These are fabulous summer dessert wines, perfect for
fresh fruits. You'll want to look for the most recent vintage or two. As they
are stoppered with a special cork, please use a "wing" or "butterfly"
corkscrew to open these bottles. Best served well-chilled. Asti Spumante wines are more bubbly, but typically less flowery and flavorful.
When in this region, you might also look for the fizzy red wines produced in a
similar style: "Brachetto" and "Malvasia di Castelnuovo
Many Tuscan producers make this from a combination of Malvasia and
Trebbiano grapes. The fruit is dried on straw mats, picked early when it has high acidity.
The grapes are then pressed, typically between Christmas and Easter. The
juice is transferred to small, odd-shaped little barrels and sealed with some sort of
concrete or cement "bung." It is usually matured in an above-ground or
upstairs room where the wine spends, generally, at least 3 years. Some producers
make amazingly good Vin Santo, the wine being rich, sweet, honeyed and with a slight
"nutty" quality. Others are more vinous and merely resemble some sort of
This is the wine which customers want for dipping biscotti.
Typically served from cool cellar temp to thoroughly chilled.
This style of wine is said to have been introduced to France by a Spaniard
back in the 13th century! He added eau-de-vie to the already very sweet
(and potentially high in alcohol) musts of fermenting wine. The high alcohol kills
the yeast and stops the fermentation, leaving a considerable quantity of unfermented
sugar. In a wine such as Porto, the alcohol represents something like 25% of the
volume, whilst in V-D-N's, this alcohol addition totals no more than ten percent of the
Further, Vins Doux Naturals have to have at least a potential alcohol strength
(if they were fermented to dryness, that is) of 15% alcohol by volume. While we
might view these strictly as "dessert wines," some, such as the red Banyuls
wine, might be served with a main plate of duck with figs or cherries!
There is an amazing array of "dessert" wines made in virtually
every region of Italy. To try and catalogue them all would be nearly impossible.
Here are some: MARSALA Made in both dry and sweet versions, some are made
from concentrated or cooked juice. The word Vergine on the label, indicates this
is made without the "cooking" process and these are aged in a system somewhat
akin to the Spanish "solera" process. The word Superiore usually
means you'll find the caramel quality in either a dry or sweet Marsala. MALVASIA delle LIPARI Made in the province of Messina,
some are light and sprightly wines, while many are made from dried grapes.
The latter is sold as Passito or Liquoroso. MOSCATO di PANTELLERIA This comes from an island which
is actually closer to Africa than Sicily! Muscat here goes by the name Zibibbo
and is made into fizzy, full-throttle bubbly or passito-styled wines.
ROSA These are red or pink-colored Muscats coming from the Alto Adige
in Northern Italy.
RECIOTO di SOAVE Made in Italy's Veneto region, the
grapes of Garganega and Trebbiano are dried and made into a sweet dessert wine. We
had a marvelous, curious pairing of one of these with a pasta of "ravioli"
stuffed with crushed Amaretti cookies! VINI "MACULANI" Okay, you won't find this
reference anywhere else, but the Veneto winery of Fausto Maculan makes excellent sweet
wines. One is made of a rare, local variety called "Vespaiolo" and is sold
as "TOROCOLATO", while an Orange Muscat is labeled "DINDARELLO".
VERDUZZO The Verduzzo grape is typically found in Italy's
Friuli region. It is not necessarily a dessert wine, as some dry examples exist.
A wine by the name of RAMANDOLO is also made of Verduzzo
grapes. The wine tends to be slightly bitter, so a bit of residual sugar makes
these more palatable.
PICOLIT This rare grape variety is said to have made a
wine rivaling France's Chateau d'Yquem back in the late 1800s. It has enjoyed a
modest renaissance, producing some excellent and expensive sweet wines. The variety
seems to do its best in Friuli, although there is some to the south in Emilia-Romagna.
BOTRYTIZED WINES Yes! Botrytis-affected wines are
made in Italy. I have limited experience with these, having tasting notes on but a
few from the region of Umbria. Antinori's "Muffato della Sala" is the best
we have in the shop of this type of wine.
RUBY & TAWNY PORTS The
entry level bottlings from most firms. Many firms have a slightly more deluxe
bottling, often styled along the lines of a vintage port, such as Graham's Six Grapes.
10,20,30,40 Year bottlings
COLHEITAS (tawny Ports, often labeled with the harvest date as
well as the bottling date)
LATE BOTTLED VINTAGE PORT -LBV- (some are filtered, others bottled
SINGLE QUINTA/SECOND LABEL Bottlings...(Often made in years when they
nearly 'declared" a vintage such as Taylor's "Quinta de Vargellas" or
but most limited production...Only 3-4 of every ten years are "declared,"
typically. Bottled after two years aging in wood, these take years to develop and
will throw considerable sediment with proper bottle aging.
"Real" or genuine Port comes from Portugal's Douro Valley, a
rugged, mountainous terrain with steep and sculpted hillside vineyards.
Though a small amount of White Port is produced, the lion's share of the Port business is
in red dessert wines. The juice is fermented about half-way before being siphoned
off into barrels or tanks which are one-quarter filled with brandy. This stuns and
kills the yeast, leaving the wines with a substantial amount of sweetness.
The range in Port wines is considerable.
If you're really on a budget, the entry level Ports such as Ruby or Tawny are certainly
acceptable. We usually suggest a couple of particular "LBV", Late Bottled
Vintage Ports for those who are value conscious.
When money is not an issue, we typically have a range of Vintage Ports (and have access to
loads of old bottlings). We try to offer, as always, good value. There are
always a number of bottles stored upright (to allow them to be decanted relatively
immediately) of 10-30 year old Vintage Ports.
(lightest and driest) Manzanilla (technically this is not a Sherry)
Made of white grapes, Sherry is a fortified wine which is intentionally
oxidized. This intensifies the color from a pale straw to more yellow or golden hue.
The predominant grape varieties here are the Palomino (for the lighter, drier Sherries)
and Pedro Ximnez for the richer and sweeter Sherries. There is also some Muscat
cultivated in the region of Jerez and some houses bottle "Moscatel", a wine
similarly sweet to a good Cream Sherry, but far more aromatic.
The region of Montilla used to supply wine to the Sherry houses. This is no longer
the case. The firms in Jerez tend to be larger and more expert in the area of
marketing, meaning the wines of Montilla, relatively unknown, can provide good quality at
a rather attractive price.
Vintners in California, having all the wines listed above to imitate, make
a tremendous array of dessert wines. For years, California winemakers, particularly
those in the Central Valley, made "dessert wines" labeled Port and Sherry.
Sometimes these have even been made of the same varieties as grown in Portugal and
Spain's Jerez regions.
There is a wide variety of Muscat wines in California, from non-fortified, low alcohol
still wines to slightly fizzy efforts to fortified bottlings of standard Muscat to the
more exotic Orange Muscat and Black Muscat. There are a few
"port"-styled wines made in California, though few really challenge the great
wines of Oporto. There are a few interesting and unique California dessert wines,
most notably Late Harvest Zinfandels and Schramsberg's dessert sparkling wine called
The Late Harvest Zinfandel is usually made as a last-ditch effort to do something with
fruit which has attained a surprisingly high level of sugar. I suppose one might
liken some of these to Italy's "Amarone" wines or "Recioto Amarone"
bottlings. Most vintners try to persuade consumers their Late Harvest
Zinfandel is similar to "Port", though Port is not usually made of dehydrated
There are a number of interesting wines made of Botrytized fruit, usually Riesling, though
some are made of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Scheurebe and a periodic Zinfandel or other
red wine variety.
Bonny Doon makes an extraordinary array of sweet wines, even a Muscat in the style of a
German or Austrian "Eiswein".
"Stickies" are what the Aussies call dessert wines. They
make a phenomenal array of dessert wines. A handful of producers have large stocks
of wood-matured "port"-styled wines, along with well-aged, fortified Muscats and
Tokay wines. The Tokay wines are not similar to the Hungarian wines called Tokaji,
but they can be amazingly satisfying.
There are also some very fine Late-Harvested sweet wines made of Riesling and Semillon.
Aszú is a notation that the grapes have been affected with "noble
rot" or Botrytis cinerea.
Years ago we saw but one producer of this wine. Today, with some foreign
investments, there are a number of interesting wines coming from Hungarian soils.