Most of the wine lovers and collectors I know have a tiny corner of their cellars devoted to sweet and fortified wines like Sauternes and Port. These and other “sweet” 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. Desserts have a tendency to throw sweet wines out of balance, bringing out their acidity rather than their sweetness. Hence, sweet wines don’t usually taste very sweet next to sweet foods—one reason Champagne and wedding cake is usually a lousy pairing. 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.
Probably the most common—and least expensive—sweet wines are called late-harvest wines. Late-harvest Gewurztraminers and Rieslings are aptly named since their sweetness derives from grapes that are harvested late in their short lives. Grapes for these wines are left to ripen on the vine well after the regular grape harvest, thus intensifying and accruing sweetness. But this is a gamble for winemakers. Hungry animals, rot and frosty temperatures are all potential enemies of late-harvest grapes.
However, rot is also the secret behind some of the world’s great sweet wines like French Sauternes. Yup, rot. When a fungus called Botrytis cinerea—commonly known as noble rot—attacks grapes late in the fall, it causes them to concentrate acid, sugar and glycerin into a sweet, nutty, syrupy nectar. The grapes are extremely delicate and must be picked by hand, one-by-one, as they ripen. Obviously, this is a labor-intense process, and one that adds to the often astronomical price of great dessert wines like Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes.
Probably the most common and familiar 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, too. Port ranges in style from inexpensive, youthful Ruby Ports to wallet-busting, complex vintage Ports that must be well-aged before drinking. Since Port is fortified with alcohol, it’s sweet but also high in alcohol compared to other sweet wines, which tend to be fairly low in alcohol. Though the fancy stuff gets most of the press, only about 2 percent of the total production of Port is represented by vintage bottlings.
Finally, there are a number of sweet wines than don’t fit neatly into any of the common categories. I’m thinking of wines like Bonny Doon’s delicious Framboise, Far Niente Dolce, Icewines, Hungarian Tokay and the like. A couple of good, sweet bangs-for-the-buck are Peter Lehmann Botrytis Semillon ($16.99) and Elderton Botrytis Semillon ($19.99), from Australia.
As I mentioned, most of these wines are enjoyed better when by themselves than when they’re paired with foods. However, a few classic sweet-wine/food matches endure. One classic combination is the luxurious pairing of Sauternes with foie gras. For baked-apple desserts like tarte Tatin, try a late-harvest Riesling. Finally, there’s probably no food and wine pairing more esteemed than that of good, ripe Stilton with vintage Port. 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. You’ll discover how sweet life can be.