By Craig Allen
Rich bouquets and sweet notes—the perfect pair for romance and the perfect recipe for dessert wines.
Freezing temperatures, mutage and noble rot—it doesn’t sound incredibly romantic, but it happens to be the process to increase sugar levels in order to produce a fine dessert wine.
Let’s start from the beginning
Dessert wines are simply sweet wines which are usually served alone, as an aperitif or with dessert.
• In the United States, wine is legally considered dessert wine if it has more than 14 percent alcohol.
• Dessert wines in Germany contain about half the amount of alcohol as American wines, but are still considered dessert wines.
• Over in the UK, dessert wines are any sweet wine served with a meal.
Whatever the country, traditionally speaking, dessert wines can be broken down into:
• Late Harvest
• Ice Wine
• Fortified wines
Before I describe each type of dessert wine, I should explain “Noble Rot”. No, it is not just a band in Massachusetts, it is a grey fungus known as Botrytis. No need to gasp, this mold actually helps produce concentrated sweet wine. Botrytis strikes during moist conditions when the grapes become ripe. If moisture continues, the grapes will become “grey rot” and it will destroy the crop. However, if dryer conditions persist the process become “noble rot” and voila! You have a spectacular fine sweet wine.
Late Harvest means exactly what it says—it’s a late harvest when the grapes have actually dried out or “raisin” on the vine. You can find these sweet white wines all over the world in every price range.
Peter Lehmann Botrytis Semillon 375ml (Australia) $14.99
Chateau Pajos Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 500ml (Hungary) $49.99
Sauternes is also a late harvest dessert wine. It is a region of Bordeaux, France located in a river valley (again, the misty conditions create the “noble rot”) and procudes a rich, deep brown, creamy wine with honey notes, as well as hints of apricot, peach and vanilla. Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes are used for Sauternes. Vintage is very important with Sauternes and it can age indefinitely.
Chateau de Sugur 375ml – $19.99
Ch Rabaud Promis 750ml – $69.99
Ice Wine is the extreme form of late harvest dessert wines where the temperatures have to be below 20 degrees in order for the water in the grapes to freeze out, yielding high concentrations of sugar. Since ice wines depend on very cold temperatures, you will find most of the production coming out of Germany, Canada and New York’s Finger Lakes. Most of these wines are made with white grapes and produce a thick sweet wine with honey, apricot and peach notes. However, you will find some red ice wines made with Red Zinfandel or Monstrar. Since these frozen grapes yield very little syrup, ice wines tend to be a bit pricey.
Standing Stone Vidal Ice 375ml (New York) $22.99
Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine 375ml (Canada) $59.99
And now we come to the fortified dessert wines, which essentially means alcohol has been added to the raisin wine fermentation. They typically produce levels of 20-percent alcohol, are very full, very rich and very good. In fact, some would say vintage port is the best wine in the world. It started in Portugal in the 17th century and takes the name from Oporto located in the Douro Valley along the Rio Douro, which is also known as the river of Gold. Port-style wines are produced all over the world; however Port or Porto strictly denotes wines produced in Portugal.
Port wines are divided into two categories: vintage and non-vintage.
Vintage Port can only be declared a vintage when the weather warrants it, which is about three times every 10 years. The perfect weather conditions are essential for producing scintillating vintage ports: a cold wet winter, a dry, warm spring and an incredibly hot summer.
Port wine is then aged in barrels and stored in caves. “Declaration” of a vintage port can take years. It begins with the Port Wine Institute after the young port has been aged for just over a year. If it receives a nod, the producer must then make a “Declaration” to the Wine Trade. The argument could ensue for some time.
Vintage ports produce the richest, fullest body and you will certainly pay for it with many bottles priced at upwards of one hundred dollars.
Niepoort Vintage Port 2003 375ml $42.99
Non-Vintage Ports are still incredible, they just aren’t “declared” (perhaps the weather wasn’t as opulent that year). They can also be blended ports, meaning various years of harvest. They mimic a vintage port, but are much more affordable. Non-vintage ports are broken down into two categories: Ruby and Tawny.
Ruby ports are stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks. This helps preserve the claret color by preventing the oxidative aging. Ruby ports are aged 3 to 5 years and should be opened soon after you buy them. They are the most inexpensive of ports.
Fonseca Ruby 750ml – $16.99
Tawny ports, on the other hand, are aged in a wood barrel where oxidation takes place. Unlike the claret color in ruby ports, tawny ports take on a golden brown color and picks up a caramel, nutty flavor. Tawny ports also come aged (Tawny Reserve Port have aged at least seven years in barrels). As more time is spent in oak barrels, the tawny port takes on deeper more concentrated flavors and it becomes tamer and balanced.
Dows Fine Tawny 750ml – $14.99
Grahams 20 year Tawny 750 ml – $58.99
Rich bouquets of gold, ruby and claret with sweet notes of apricot, peach and vanilla—treat yourself (and a special friend) to a bottle of dessert wine; the perfect recipe for those cold winter nights!
Craig Allen is owner of All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham Farms. For more information call 220.9463 or visit www.allstarwine.com.