Dessert Wine

As we move into the holiday season, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at dessert wines (not the same as my article on desert wines). When I first started drinking wine, I was immediately attracted to those sweeter style wines. As I tried more and more wine, I found that my palate began to trend towards drier wines. First, the sweet wines disappeared, next the white wines, and all I was left with was red. Now, I have "rediscovered" my love of sweet wines. In the United States, a dessert wine is described as any wine over 14% alcohol. Obviously, there are higher alcohol wines (Zinfandel, or most anything out of California) that are dry, and not sweet. This definition is outdated. To me a dessert wine is anything that has a detectable amount of residual sugar. For example, some German wines are only 6% alcohol, but are very sweet. So, for this discussion, dessert wines are any wine that I could serve at the end of a meal, that have some discernible level of sugar. Even though I could serve them at the end of the meal, you may find that they work well before and during a meal too (think Sauternes with foie gras).

Chateau d'Yquem
There are so many different dessert wines out there, how can you tell them apart? What makes them different from each other? And, what are the appropriate foods to pair with them?

Let's look at how dessert wines are made first. Grapes are sweet to begin with. Have you ever tasted a wine grape, just off the vine, around harvest time? Extremely sweet. They don't taste anything like those table grapes you nibble on at snack time. Matter of fact, wine grapes are said to have the highest sugar content of any fruit, and that's what makes them so great for wine. You need sugar, to act as food for the yeast, which eventually converts into alcohol.

Sweet wines can be made a number of ways. There are fortified dessert wines (such as Port and Madiera), where the grape juice begins to ferment, but is stopped short of full fermentation (where all the sugar is converted to alcohol, and the wine is dry). Fortified refers to the addition of brandy (see my blog on Cognac) into the fermenting grape juice, basically killing the yeast, and stopping any further fermentation. What is left is a sweet juice, fortified with a high alcohol brandy.

Botrytis Cinerea
A second method for producing a sweet wine is through the development of "Noble Rot" on the grapes. This gray mold is known as Botrytis Cinerea (Latin for "ash grape disease"). The beneficial mold (and there is a bad mold too) infects those grapes that are exposed to wet and dry conditions, usually found around bodies of water. The mold, or fungus infects the grapes, and draws water from them, leaving behind a higher concentration of grape sugars, acids and minerals. When fermented, there is a high amount of residual sugar left in the final product. Some of the best known, and most expensive wines in the world are produced from "Noble Rot" grapes: Sauternes and Tokajii. The fungus does add a unique honeysuckle aroma to the wines.

Passito Grapes
Some other methods of increasing the sugar content prior to fermentation include leaving the grapes on the vine longer than usual ("late harvest" wines), producing higher sugar content. Or, allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine, as winter conditions sets in. In this case, the ice crystals are removed, and you are left with a concentrations of solids. These style of wines are known as "ice wines". Another method is to pick the grapes at the normal harvest time, and dry the grapes. This can be done on straw mats (as is done with Vin Santo in Italy) or in drying rooms. These wines are known as "passito" wines in Italy, or "vin de paille" in France.  Again, the idea is to remove the water, and concentrate the remaining solids. The drying method adds a distinct oxidized character to the the final product. A sweet Sherry known as Pedro Ximénez (PX), is a made with a combination of drying, then fortifying.

There are some "lesser" methods for producing sweet wines, which include the addition of sugar (known as chaptalization). The sugar can be in any form: honey, beet sugar, or in some cases, a concentration of grape sugars (known as Süssreserve).

When serving these sweet wines, keep in mind that, in general, you want your wine to be sweeter than the dessert you are serving. Usually these wines are so sweet they can be a dessert by themselves. Whites are typically served slightly chilled, and reds at room temperature. There are some classic pairings that you may want to try, and not all include dessert:

Sauternes and Tokajii paired with foie gras, blue and hard cheeses.
Vin Santo paired with almond biscotti (Cantucci)
Port paired with Stilton Cheese and walnuts
Brechetto d'Acqui - While not traditionally thought of as a dessert wine, I find this sweet, frizzy wine, to be one of the best wines to pair with chocolate. I know others think of Port, but try this one if you can find it.
Madeira (Bual or Malmsey) with anything you would add caramel to: apple pie, pecan pie

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