Most of the serious wine lovers and collectors I know have a tiny corner of their cellars devoted to sweet and fortified wines, like Sauternes and Port. Such wines tend to be lumped together under the broad category of dessert wines, but that’s something of a misnomer.
For starters, intensely sweet wines are not usually very good with desserts. They are typically much better sipped by themselves. That is, they are more appropriate as dessert than with dessert. Sweet desserts dishes have a tendency to throw sweet wines out of balance, bringing out their acidity rather than their sweetness. So sweet wines don’t usually taste very sweet next to sweet foods. But a well-made sweet wine beautifully balances sugar and acidity in a tasty tongue-pleasing tango. And the best sweet wines aren’t cloying, but refreshing. For that reason, I usually prefer to sip sweet wines solo after the meal has ended.
The most common—and least expensive—sweet wines are called late-harvest wines. Late-harvest Gewürztraminers and Rieslings are aptly named since their sweetness derives from leaving the grapes to ripen on the vine well after the regular harvest, thus intensifying their sweetness. But it is a gamble for winemakers. Hungry animals, rot and frosty temperatures are all potential enemies of late-harvest grapes. Good, affordable examples of these wines are Ste. Chapelle Special Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling from Idaho and Navarro’s Late Harvest Gewürztraminer. At the expensive end of the spectrum are the notable Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling Special Select Late Harvest Anderson Valley and Clos du Bois Late Harvest Semillon Knights Valley.
Rot is the secret behind some of the world’s great sweet wines, like French Sauternes. When a fungus call Botrytis cinerea—commonly known as “noble rot”—attacks grapes late in the fall, it causes them to concentrate acid, sugar and glycerin into sweet, nutty, syrupy nectar. This too is a risky prospect. The grapes are extremely delicate and must be picked by hand, one-by-one, as they ripen.
Probably the most common and well-known sweet wine is Port. And though this classic fortified wine comes from Portugal’s Douro River Valley, many countries—especially Australia—are now producing respectable Ports. They range in style from inexpensive and young, youthful Ruby Ports to wallet-busting, complex Vintage Ports that must be cellared and aged for decades before drinking. Since Port is fortified with alcohol, it is both sweet and also high in alcohol compared to other sweet wines, which tend to be reasonably low in alcohol content. Though the fancy stuff gets most of the press, only about two percent of the total production of Port is represented by vintage bottlings. Among my favorite everyday after-dinner dessert Ports are Fonseca Bin 17, Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port, and Yalumba Clocktower Tawny Port from Australia. Another good choice from down under is Seppelt “Trafford” Barossa Valley Tawny Port.
Finally, there are a number of “oddball” sweet wines than don’t fit neatly into any of the common categories. I’m thinking here of wines like Bonny Doon’s delicious Framboise, Pedro Ximinez sherry, icewines, Hungarian Tokays and the like.
Whether you choose to drink sweet wines a la carte or paired with well-suited foods, you should certainly explore the world of dessert wines. After all, any excuse to experiment with new wine flavors is a good one.