Dessert wines: An overview, part I

Port is aged in wood barrels, but its production is much more complicated than table wine. This is the first of two parts discussing dessert wines ? ports, sherries, sauternes, ice wine and the rest. Part II, which will offer dessert wine suggestions, is here.

The Wine Curmudgeon has a deep, dark guilty secret (and, no, it ?s not Yellow Tail). 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.

It ?s not necessarily a holiday wine, but it does pair well with this time of year.

Dessert wines come in a variety of flavors and styles. Most of us know ports and sherries, and one of the two or three best wines I ?ve ever tasted is a sherry ? a rare Osborne that was so thick it was almost gooey, and packed with deep, dark, nutty, raisiny flavor. Ports and sherries are made with traditional wine grapes, though their production techniques are much more complicated than table wine.

Ports and sherries, though, are just the beginning. Dessert wines can be made with fruit other than grapes, like raspberries or blackberries. Some can be sparkling, and some use grapes that have frozen on the vines. This produces ice wine, which is among the sweetest and richest dessert wines. My Cordon Bleu classes loved ice wine, and some of the students wanted to create menus to use it.

One caveat about production methods: Not every winery does dessert wine the right way. Too many, and especially regional wineries, will make port as an afterthought, as a way to use leftover grapes. Or winemakers will try to do ice wine by freezing the grapes in a freezer instead of letting them freeze on the vine. These efforts should be avoided.

There are a variety of ways to make dessert wines sweet. 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 dessert wine 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 French sauterne, and the most famous of these is Ch teau 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 Ch teau 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.

Part II: Some dessert wine suggestions.

(The photo is by dsgn,, via stock.xchng.)