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Wine Without Pretense: Sweet relief from the winter chill

POSTED: January 2, 2013 1:30 a.m.

Follow me on this. It’s winter. That means it’s cold out there. When you’re cold, what do you want? You want something hearty, something filling, something warming... whether on your plate or in your glass.

That’s why today we’re chatting about some sweet, moderately heavy wines you will serve after a belly-busting winter meal of beef bourguignon, meat loaf, etc.

Dessert wines.

Dessert wines come in different forms, but all have one thing in common — they are sweet. Some are sweeter than others; some are heavier than others. But they all help with digesting the big, full-bodied meals our bodies (and minds) crave when the frigid wind whines outside.

First, a primer on different types of dessert wines. Then I’ll get to specifics on about four I’ve come across in the past year or so.

Some dessert wines get sweet because of a mold known as botrytis cinerea. Under certain conditions botrytis forms naturally in a vineyard. The mold adheres to grape bunches and looks like the worst dust bunnies you’ve ever seen — even under your teen-age son’s bed.

This mold places microscopic holes in the grape’s skin, permitting the water to evaporate out, but leaving the naturally occurring sugar to remain. Wine grapes used to make table wines — chardonnay, merlot, cabernet, etc. — generally reach sugar levels of 22-24 percent at harvest. But botrytized wines can hit 30-36 percent ... and that’s sweet.

These are wines such as those from Germany called Beerenauslese and Trockenberenauslese. They also come from Bordeaux, such as the famed Chateau d’Yquem. They carry notes of honey and apricots — and they are expensive.

Other dessert wines get sweet because winemakers add brandy to the fermenting wine. This high-alcohol, clear brandy does two things: It kills the yeasts vital to fermentation, and it raises the alcohol level. Because the yeasts are deceased, fermentation — conversion of grape sugar to alcohol — stops. The sugar level stays high and alcohol climbs.

This process is used to make "fortified wines," such as Portos (Ports), Sherries and the muscular muscat dessert wines of Australia.

Still other after-dinner quaffers are produced when winemakers allow the grapes to hang on the vines well after they normally would be harvested. Sugars build up to extraordinary levels ... and the winemakers hold their collective breath hoping an early freeze won’t wreck their plans.

Good dessert Portos include proprietary blends, such as Graham’s Six Grapes; Tawny and Ruby Porto and the giant of the line, Vintage Port. Give me a 10-year-old Tawny and I’m a very happy boy.

Sherries include Oloroso, also called Cream, and the rarer Brown Sherry.

Here’s an interesting quartet I’ve sipped recently. Warning: They will not be found on supermarket shelves and may be difficult to locate. But all are worth the hunt.

Evenus Zinfandel Port 2007:

This syrupy late-harvest red comes from prime zinfandel grapes grown in the Paso Robles area of California’s Central Coast by Candlewood Cellars. Big and hefty in the mouth, this is perfect with chocolate desserts. It’s also worth sipping alone by the fire with a good book in hand. Somebody explain to the younger set what a book is.

Valley of the Moon Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007:

Technically, this ain’t Port. True Port (or Porto) comes only from Portugal. But it’s a beauty, nonetheless. Made from the ultra-rare souzao grape (only 68 acres planted in California) a traditional Porto grape, this is a fortified wine, aged in neutral oak barrels for 30 months. It is available only at the winery in Sonoma County. But if you’re out there, grab some.

Barra of Mendocino Bella Dolce 2008:

Barra focuses on organic and sustainable processes, and this silky red wine is from organically grown petite sirah. It is so redolent of ripe red and black fruit — think cherries and plums — it really is a dessert on its own. It’s rare; only 12 barrels were made. I’m thinking of pouring this with my Triple Chocolate Cheesecake, if I can get a mortgage to buy the ingredients.

Tokajicum Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos 2004:

The classic Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji, also Tokay, is a botrytized wine. It comes from seven different indigenous grapes. You will swear somebody dumped honey into this golden sweetheart. Nope, just tastes like it. It’s perfect with an apple or pear tart. "Puttonyos" is Hungarian for the basket used to carry the grapes. The higher the number — five is the top — the sweeter the wine.Enjoy winter with a sweet, viscous dessert wine to banish the chills.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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