The Wine Curmudgeon has a deep, dark guilty secret. It’s dessert wine – sweet, rich, luscious, and often pricey dessert wine.
In those respects, it is frequently everything that drives me crazy about the wine business. But dessert wine almost always gets the benefit of my doubt, because it is that much fun to drink. Pour a glass after a dinner, sniff it, swirl it around in the glass, and sip it. More often than not, it caps off the evening without recourse to over-chocolated desserts, the current chef-fusion-fruit concoction or whatever form of cheesecake is making the rounds.
Dessert wines come in a variety of flavors and styles. Some are made with fruit other than grapes, some are sparkling, and some use grapes that have frozen on the vines. (There are also cognacs, ports, sherries and Madeiras, but we'll worry about those some other time.)
Winemakers have a variety of ways to induce that sweetness; one of the most common is to stop fermentation before all the sugar in the grapes turns to alcohol (which means many dessert wines have two-thirds the alcohol content of dinner wines). What each has in common, regardless of style, is sweetness – not sugary soft drink sweet, but a fuller, more approachable sweetness. It’s a flavor, and not the wine’s reason for being.
The most famous dessert wine is the French sauterne, and the most famous of these is Château d’Yquem. Sauterne requires a fungus called botrytis, which rots the grapes and leaves them higher in sugar than normal. This is an unpredictable process, and is one reason why Château d’Yquem is rare and costs $500 a bottle. I’ve tasted a 20-year-old d’Yquem, and it was an impressive mix of caramel and honey. But I was also told that it still needed a decade or so before it was really good.
Can you pair dessert wines with food? Yes, but it’s generally not worth the trouble. They stand on their own. Also, don’t be discouraged by the prices, which are high. A dessert wine serving is half or less than that of a dinner wine, and one or two glasses is more than sufficient. Serve these slightly chilled, and then sit back and enjoy:
• Jackson-Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Vidal Icewine 2005 ($20 for a 187-ml bottle). Icewine is made by letting the grapes freeze on the vine, which concentrates the sugar. This is a Canadian wine, and Canada produces some of the world’s best icewine. The vidal is more sweet than fruity, though there are some tropical flavors underneath the sweetness.
• Oriel Ondine 2003 ($31 for a 375-ml bottle). This is a bargain for a sauterne, all things considered. Look for caramel and vanilla, plus some very ripe apricot flavors.
• Le Vol des Anges 2006 ($30 for a 187-ml bottle). The legendary Randall Grahm says this may be the best wine he has ever made. It isn’t, but that’s no reason not to try it. It’s made in the style of a sauterne, letting botrytis loose on roussanne grapes. It’s not as rich as the Ondine or the icewine, and it has a very intriguing herb-like flavor in the middle of the sweetness. One of the Wine Curmudgeon's tasting companions thought this was easily the best of our recent dessert panel.