Just Desserts

(Originally published March 2002)

During the cold winter months most folks drink less white wine. In this Hanes is no different. Hanes is equally complicit in another wine drinking trend, one that fills him with vast regret. Like too many kind and gentle folks, during these same wintry months Hanes rarely drinks more dessert wines. Dessert wines, succulently heavy and bursting with sweet and smoky flavors, are a wonderful source of inebriation, especially from October through April, all those delicious calories hidden beneath sweaters instead revealed by summertime bathing suits. In an effort to exhort all and sundry to step up their imbibing of dessert wines, Hanes will now quickly run through the dessert wines of the world.

First, what are dessert-caliber wines? Each region in the world has their own particular answer to this question, resulting from the type of grapes they grow and the climatic conditions that effect their vineyards. But, in general, this can be said. They are sweet to very sweet. They often have a thick, concentrated, fat mouth feel and quite a few are "a dessert unto themselves." Many have higher alcohol content than dry table wines. They often come in smaller bottles, either 375 ml or 500 ml in size (as opposed to the regular 750 ml bottle). They are perhaps, as a broad class, the most underappreciated wines on the market today.

It's hard to drink a whole bottle of dessert wine by yourself. Hanes has tried many times but it just fills up your tummy too quickly. As a result, dessert wines more than any other wines make for a social event. You need people to share in their delights. This is another thing in their favor (if you like people). Dessert wines can also be mondo expensive so it additionally helps to have extra people around to share the burden of their cost!

Before moving from region to region in exploring the various dessert wines, it should be noted that there are two different "classes" of dessert wines. The first are simply sweet wines. These have a lot of residual sugar in them, resulting either from various natural processes or from what is called "chaptalization," or when sugar is added to the fermenting grape juice must increasing alcoholic strength and often overall sweetness. The second are fortified wines. These are made kind of like chaptalized wines but instead of just adding sugar, alcoholic liquid (in many cases brandy) is added to the fermenting grape juice thereby raising the overall alcohol content to a high enough level that the yeasts and bacteria die and fermentation stops (in some cases, the alcohol is added after fermentation). On the whole, then, fortified dessert wines (e.g., Port or Sherry) are higher in alcoholic content than more naturally produced dessert wines.

Let's do fortified wines first. These wines include Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth and a few others.

Most people are familiar with Port wines. Big surprise, they are from Portugal (the Douro region, to be specific). There are three basic stylistic classes of Port, corresponding to the time the wine spends in wooden casks. Aging in casks makes for a lighter-bodied and more elegant style of Port. The lightest then are Tawny Ports. These spend at least six years in casks and sometimes up to 30 or 40 years. More full-bodied are Ruby Ports, which spend about 2-3 years in casks before bottling. This gives the wine a darker "ruby" color. Hence the name. Vintage Ports are very full-bodied and only produced in select years (called "vintage" years). These get 2-3 years of cask aging then get slapped into bottles. Because the quality of the grapes are better and they do not lose intensity via cask aging, Vintage Ports are best consumed many, many years after the vintage date. The rough flavor profile of Ports are raisin, prune, fig fruit, lots of spice, plenty of tannic bite, smokiness, and sometimes chocolate and dried herbs. Ports are best served with heavier desserts (especially chocolate-based) and cheese platters. Also cigars if you swing that way.

Note that many other places make "Port-styled" wines, albeit not always from the same grape varietals as found in the Douro of Portugal. The most well-known of these other Ports are from Australia. California also makes some, mostly from the Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (although some wineries do try to grow the Portuguese grapes and replicate the original Port in California).

Sherry dessert wines are from Jerez (alternatively known as Xérès) in Spain. Stylistically, the run the broadest range of dry to sweet among dessert wines. Some can be bone dry, some extremely sweet. Or any point in between. This is why they run the broadest range of dry to sweet among dessert wines. The flavors of Sherry are predominantly nutty, smoky, caramel, green apple with fairly strong acidity. Dessert food pairings should correspond to the sweetness of the Sherry in question with the finer ones best had with fresh fruit or light cheeses and the heavier ones with ice cream, cake or pie.

Madeira is from the Madeira island off of Portugal. These too come in a variety of styles and from various types of grapes. Green apple, figs, citrus peel, spice, toffee, coffee, smoke are among the flavors associated with Madeira. These are good with cheeses, desserts with nuts, espresso, and lighter desserts in general. Hanes has not had too many Madeira wines and this is not a good thing. They are truly highest among the underappreciated and worth investigating further.

Hanes is lukewarm on the fortified wines Marsala (from Sicily) and Vermouth (mostly from Italy and France). Feel free to provide him with examples to change his mind.

Well, that's enough on fortified wines. Let's do the sweet wines of the world.

You gotta begin in France because that is not only where arguably the most famous dessert wines come from but certainly the most varied. The primary dessert wine producing regions in France are Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Alsace and Roussillon. Some cool stuff also comes from the Rhône Valley, Monbazillac and Jurançon.

The dessert wines of Bordeaux are from the regions of Sauternes and Barsac. These wines are made from blends of the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle white grapes. As much as any unfortified dessert wines, these are the longest-lived and reward a good deal of aging. These wines are made by leaving the grapes on the vines for a long time, until they become infected with a mold called Botrytis cinerea (also known as "noble rot"). Under ideal conditions, the mold does not rot the fruit but rather sucks all the moisture out of the grapes, shriveling them and concentrating the sugars. The juice from grapes effected by Botrytis is very sweet and flavorful. Because there is not a lot of juice to be pressed out of these shriveled grapes, Sauternes and Barsac wines can be expensive. The most expensive and famous is Château d'Yquem which only a major dork has not heard of. The flavors of these wines include flower petals, soft spice, some mild oily petrol (if aged), minerals, white smoke, apples and sometimes more tropical fruit. Although expensive, they relatively speaking offer value for the dollar unmatched by any other wines (especially if aged properly for at least 15+ years). Soft cheeses, fruit-based desserts and nuts go best with these wines.

Loire Valley dessert wines are made from the Chenin Blanc grape. These come in a variety of styles and levels of sweetness. Some of the best are damn near immortal and maintain their freshness for many decades. The sub-regions most associated with dessert wines are Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon (technically both Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux are within Coteaux du Layon) and Vouvray (in Vouvray the dessert wines are labeled "Moelleux"). These wines also derive their sweetness from being botrytized, sometimes with some chaptalization. Often many "tris" (selective picking of ready grapes) are made during harvest to ensure optimal readiness before picking. The nose of these wines can be very rich and the flavor profile includes cinnamon/nutmeg spice, apricot, peach and melon fruit, thick smokiness, rubber, minerals and stone. What makes them so beautiful, though, is their often vibrant acidity which enlivens the thickness of the fluid. Given the range of fruit flavors, fruit dishes are good pairings as well as milky dishes, nutty dishes and spiced cakes.

In Alsace almost any of the varietals can be made into dessert-caliber wines by harvesting them late. These are called "Vendanges Tardives" wines, whether they are made from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, etc. Even riper grapes are called "Sélection de Grains Nobles" (sometimes effected by Botrytis) and these rival the richness of any dessert wines in the world. Alsatian dessert wines vary in their sweetness but almost all have tropical fruit flavors, lots of spice, brown sugar and smokiness or nuttiness. Prices can really vary for Alsatian dessert wines. Fruit tarts, spiced cakes or pies or vanilla-based desserts are good choices. Hanes really digs Alsatian dessert wines.

Love 'em or leave 'em dessert wines come from the Banyuls region of Roussillon in Southern France. Made mostly from Grenache, these wines express at once fresh, young fruit flavors and a more dried fruit character. Red to brown in color, there's lots of chocolate, fig, mint, nuts and spice in a good Banyuls. They can often be lighter-bodied than many dessert wines and not as ultra-sweet. Far and away they best pair with chocolate desserts, especially dark chocolate. Banyuls can be difficult to find but they are worth exploring, particularly if you are a chocolate lover.

From the Rhône Valley comes two lighter dessert wines. The first is made from Muscat grapes from the village of Beaumes-de-Venise. These wines are very pretty, offering lots of florality, citrus, stoniness, and peach, apple, pear fruit with above average acidity. These have wonderfully fragrant noses. The second is made from Viognier from the village of Condrieu (Condrieu is made in both dry and sweet styles). These too are very floral with sharper fruit of apple and pear and a freshness with accents of stone and rainwater. Rarely are either of these dessert wines hulking, over-the-top fruit bombs but instead are elegant, finesse wines. As a result, they deserve to be paired with lighter desserts like sliced fruit, sorbets or flaky crust tarts.

After all that, two other French dessert wines that have impressed Hanes are from Monbazillac and Jurançon. Monbazillac wines are similar to Sauternes and made from the same grapes. They seem to have more acidity and a little more zip in the mouth, with solid citrus and smokiness. But, at the same time, they can be very thickly textured. Jurançon, on the other hand, are a bit lighter in the mouth, with strong acidity and loads of crisp green apple flavors. There's some spice but it's mostly about that crisp, fresh mouth feel. Although they have lots of acidity, the more fragile structure of Jurançon wines suggests lighter dessert pairings.

After France, you gotta think Germany (and in lesser quantity but equal quality Austria) and their wonderfully ripe, thick Riesling dessert wines. The three levels of sweetness are Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. All are effected to some degree by Botrytis to develop more concentrated sweetness. The last class, Eiswein, are made from grapes left to shrivel for so long the grapes freeze on the vine from the winter cold. These are among the best dessert wines produced in the world and command prices to match. As a result, Hanes does not drink as many of these as he would like. Flavors range from peach and apricot to more lush, tropical fruit with generous smokiness, lactose and petrol notes, and dried flower petals. These babies coat your mouth for weeks. Some less expensive German dessert wines are made from grapes like Müller-Thurgau or Sylvaner but Riesling is the king. Nut-based desserts, fruit pies and tarts are best with these delicious treats.

Some of the highest quality yet overlooked dessert wines are from Hungary. Called Tokaji, they come in varying degrees of sweetness called puttonyos. It is actually fairly easy to find Hungarian dessert wines (although they aren't cheap) and Hanes has been wowed by every one he has so far tasted. Yet, these wines continue to be ignored by even the savviest wine lovers. These too are Botrytis-driven dessert wines and develop deep spiciness and zesty citrus touches and really energize your mouth. There are probably few desserts Tokaji could not stand up to but crème brûlée and poached fruit may be best.

Italy has many top notch dessert wines as well. The best is probably Vin Santo from Tuscany. These wines are so good it's like only saints deserve to drink them. They are made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes and are made by drying the grapes on straw mats and then pressing the dried grapes. Vin Santo can be very sweet or dry so you may have to experiment with various producers to find the house style you like best. There is usually lots of molasses, flaky dough, honey, nut and green apple flavors with sometimes a nice bitter finish. Naturally, stuff like biscotti, cookies or something like tiramisu work. Coffee-flavored stuff works well too. Other dried grape dessert wines ("passito") in Italy include Recioto from Valpolicella in Veneto and Moscato or Malvasia-based wines from Sicily. Recioto wines are made from the same grapes as Amarone (Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella) and lean towards more raisin and prune than cherry or plum fruit flavors, with chocolate, dried herb and smoke flavors. They usually fall into the middle range, weight-wise, of dessert wines and go well with chocolate desserts or cream or sponge cakes. The passito wines from Sicily tend, in Hanes's experience, to be lighter and nutty with a solid burst of acidity. Not overly complex, they're good when you want a more refreshing style of dessert wine.

The other main Italian dessert wine is Moscato d'Asti, a semi-fizzy wine from Piedmont. It's very fragrant with lots of peach, pear and honey flavors, that mostly starts off very sweet on the attack and finishes on a dry note. It can be a little weird to have a wine fizzing in your mouth while you eat dessert but it does have its place. Best with fresh fruit plates, freshly whipped cream optional.

Spain offers two other main dessert wines beyond Sherry. The first are those made from the Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) grape. These strike Hanes as being similar to Banyuls dessert wines, with the same smoky prune, plum flavors and sweet spice and chocolate. The second are those made from Malvasia grapes, making light golden colored wines with good citrus and green apple/melon flavors that stay fresh in the mouth. These both can be quite good and the prices are fair for dessert wines.

No matter what they say, the United States really doesn't do superlatively at dessert wines yet. They are mainly curiosities for fun quaffing. The most promising come from Washington State and are made like those in Germany and the land to our north, Canada. Our hockey-playing Canuck neighbors are mostly renowned for their dessert wines than dry wines. These are Eisweins, frozen on the vine as in Germany and made mostly from Riesling or Vidal grapes. These can truly be fantastic, vibrant taste treats with thick apricot, peach, pear flavors and smoky, spicy caramel and brown sugar accents. Most Canadian Eiswein is outrageously expensive but some "Late Harvest" wines, the cut below Eiswein, can be fairly priced. These are worth trying but cost too much for regular swilling. Again, nutty desserts and fruit tarts are excellent with these wines.

The Australian Port wines mentioned previously are probably the weakest dessert wine offerings from the land Down Under. For dessert wines, or as they call them "stickies," the best are what are known as Muscat or Tokay. These wines have huge presence in the mouth, bursting with spicecake, maple syrup, apricot paste, orange peel and dates/raisins. They can last forever and can be either really cheap or really expensive depending on their age. The "Muscat" wines are made from Brown Muscat, aka Frontignac. The "Tokay" wines are made from Muscadelle. Australia also makes lots of other Late Harvest wines from grapes such as Riesling, Sémillon or Sauvignon Blanc. If you are looking for good value in dessert wines, Australia is a great place to start.

The rest of the world may make some dessert wines but nothing regions like South America, South Africa, Greece or New Zealand produce seem more worth your dinero than the more established wines.

One thing to mention is that some dessert wines, particularly the lighter ones, make for excellent aperitifs before a meal. Lots of people prefer Champagne or dry Sherry and it's hard to argue with that. But for a change of pace, one might want to try some of the following instead: Moscato d'Asti, Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Spanish or Italian Malvasia-based dessert wines, Beaumes-de-Venise, Condrieu or Jurançon. These are all light enough to not fill up your belly and offer a broad range of flavors, activating your taste buds for the food to come. That is if you think it advisable to allocate precious stomach space to food rather than even more wine...