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Dessert wines may be the most misunderstood wines of all. But tasting is all it takes to appreciate them

The joy of sweetness 

Dessert wines may be the most misunderstood wines of all. But tasting is all it takes to appreciate them.

Americans don't know what to make of dessert wines. Lord knows, it's not sugar or sweetness that deters them, as tons of cheesecake and black-bottom pie are consumed weekly. One problem could be that sweet beverages load up our table during mealtime itself, from iced tea to hard lemonade to Coke. Plus, there seems to be little time in our current culture to take moments to ponder the world, or someone's eyes, while consuming a rare Sauterne or marvelous Eiswein. Time tables, a football game, a neighborhood association meeting or an evening concert constantly loom. Wines are not overly portable, but a Snickers or an apple turnover is.

Let's consider: a time to sit and relax at the table or in front of the fireplace with a post- prandial delight. You may have drunk water or a dry wine during the meal, so the sweetness will be novel and welcome. The dilemma ? If you have cherries jubilee staring at you, how is a glass of wine going to stand up to, let alone match, this sugar-loaded, solid, stolid dessert? As the King of Siam would ponder, "'Tis a puzzlement!"

Can wines really enhance your pleasure at meal's end? The answer is yes, but there's thought and work required in preventing your Rheingau riesling from falling flat as a de- puffed pastry. A few guidelines:

  • Match Sauternes, or medium-bodied muscat, with the simplest of butter cakes. Let the wine be the frosting!

  • The marriage of biscotti with Italian Vin Santo is a heavenly one, but an Amontillado Sherry or an auslese weight German riesling will be surprisingly perfect as well.

  • Cheese pastry or plain cheesecake is ideally suited to rich late harvest muscats.

  • Chocolate confections are better left alone, but a late bottled vintage port or an old fashioned brown Australian port can be fun, and at least doesn't clash.

  • Flavored ice cream is better left alone, but plain vanilla is enhanced by numerous choices, especially fruit wines such as blueberry or raspberry.

  • Fruit (yes, it's still considered a dessert in some places) matches ideally with light muscats (still or sparkling), spatlese German rieslings, or a Hungarian Tokaj of three or four puttonyos. This is my favorite way to do dessert.

  • Big, overwhelmingly rich, sweet confections like baked Alaska or tiramisu are not good with wines. Also, any dessert that has wine as an ingredient, as tiramisu uses Marsala, is better eaten without wine accompaniment. It's like drinking one wine from your glass and one from your fork.

    But enough of lists. If you're knocking yourself out on a complex, work-intensive dessert, then leave out the wine. On the other hand, If you can make a delicious, yet simple, not overly sweet preparation, then wine will be a great partner in finishing, or, with the proper company, extending, a fine meal.

    There are thousands of dessert wines scattered throughout the four corners of our globe. One lifetime may not be enough to discover the pleasures and individuality that this category of wine possesses. Sip by sip, country by country, get to know some of these paeans to creativity, and the joy of sweetness. They are wines that predate their dryer relatives by millennia.

    Dessert wines

    2000 "Early" Muscat, Sylvan 500 ml. $12
    A perfect "novice" dessert wine that's light as a soap bubble. A subtle spritz carries with it grapey goodness and an ephemeral aftertaste. Almost too easy to drink, it just floats down the throat.

    2002 Moscato d'Asti, DeForville $16
    Airy with low-pressure bubbles that make it refreshing and alarmingly vital. A revelation to those who've never tried one; its bouquet jumps out at you with such intensity. Delicious, but watch out! One glass leads to another, and another.

    2001 Moscato Late Harvest, EOS 375 ml. $20
    This Paso Robles winery produces a joyful wine in a beautiful package (see photo). They whimsically call it "Tears of Dew." A tropical bouquet with undercurrents of ripe stone fruit. Flavors are lightly honeyed with a dash of coconut and crispy almonds. Nice balance with just enough acidity to keep it agile.

    2000 Muscat de Becaue de Venise, La Pigeade 375 ml. $14.50
    From the Rhone district of southern France, this thick, heady wine has been made for centuries. Sappy, rich with an aroma of citrus and flowers, you'll find this rather decadent and heartily satisfying.

    1997 Vin Santo del Chianti, Fattoria Casabianca $20

    A classic vin santo, neither too dry like some sherries, nor too sweet like a muscat. Toasty, almondy with underlying sweetness. Not heavy and personality packed.

    2002 Riesling Spatlese, Monchhof $23
    From the famous Mosel town of Urzig and the vineyard named Wurzgarten, it lives up to its name. A spicy, "nervy" white with a brisk, light sweetness and energetic acidity. A full and firm drink to close an evening.

    2002 Riesling Auslese, Geltz-Zilliken $29

    From the village of Saarburg and the vineyard named Rausch, this Mosel estate makes a sweet, delicately styled wine with a steely backbone that never allows for dullness or a weighty mouth feel. Too rich a dessert will smother it.

    2000 Beerenauslese, Bretz $15
    From the Burgenland region of Austria, famous for its sweet wines, this contains the late harvest "noble rot" or botrytis nose. Botrytis occurs when grapes are left on the vine, well into fall, to be infested by a mold that shrivels the grapes naturally and makes for a concentrated, richly textured drink. Apricot impressions on the nose and palate. Thick, simple and palate coating.

    2000 Botrytis Semillon, Peter Lehman $14
    From Australia, a remarkable wine with the full texture and "oiliness" that semillon grapes possess. Overflowing with peach character, it is lighter than the Bretz Beerenauslese, but has a creamy, succulent fruitiness.

    Recioto di Valpolicella, Tomaso Bussola 500 ml. $37
    Recioto, just like its more famous cousin, Amarone, is never cheap. Super ripe, red grapes are left out on mats in the fall to shrivel, becoming raisin-like, and are then pressed in the spring. Unlike Amarone, much residual sugar is left in. Strong, concentrated, loaded with spice, a chocolate-covered cherry quality and an ultra thick texture. A bit odd, but quite the experience.

    Mourvedre, Cline Cellars "Big Break" Vineyard 375 ml. $25
    Another red dessert wine, and maybe the oddest. Mourvedre, an important grape of the southern Rhone region, is transformed into a late-harvest wine by the California cult winery named Cline. Cline is well-known for bargain-priced zinfandel, but they make exceptional single vineyard bottlings as well, from ancient vines and tiny yields. This sweet fellow is super ripe with vanilla, lush berries and dark, almost candied fruit impressions. It really should be drunk all alone. Connoisseurs--fool your friends!

    2001 Sauternes, Chateau Suduiraut $50
    Sauternes range from delightful up to existential. (Chateau d'Yquem is the latter, but its price of hundreds of dollars is a deterrent.) Suduiraut is one of d'Yquems top challengers in quality, especially in a top vintage like 2001. Made from semillon grapes with 15 percent sauvignon blanc, botrytis is quite evident. Its golden color, which darkens with age, forceful alcohol and perfect balance, create an inspiring mold to which many other wineries aspire. Fat, rich and almost liqueur like. To show its best, it really needs five more years in the bottle. Patience is a virtue, but . . .

    1999 Tokaj Aszu 3 Puttonyos, Oremus 500 ml. $28
    From Hungary, this famous wine, made from the obscure Furmint grape, has buckets of botrytis-affected grapes added to the base wine. A new fermentation creates an elegant, surprising wine with an ethereal sweetness, and light body.

    1983 Tokaj Essencia, Oremus 500 ml. $82
    Remarkably, this is one of the best buys on today's list! Compares favorably to Chateau d'Yquem at one-third to one-sixth the price. Essencia is an elixir: so rich, so perfumed and outrageously complex that it is said to have caused kings to rise up from their deathbeds. I'll make no such claim, but this wine, which is made entirely from botrytis-affected grapes, is one of the world's truly great wines, regardless of price. It's seldom available and seldom made (conditions must be perfect). It takes years to ferment and then spends 10 years in oak before release! One of a kind, a life altering experience, only a small glass will do the trick for ecstatic response.

    Fortified wines

    These are all wines that have had brandy or neutral spirits added to the wine in order to stop fermentation and retain a certain level of grape sugar and sweetness. Wines differ as to the amount residual sugar and the alcoholic strength. Fortified wines are always higher in alcohol than "regular" dessert wines.

    "Museum" Muscat, Yalumba 375 ml. $18
    This non-vintage Australian classic is what the natives call a "stickie." Dark, warm, dense character with raisin, spice and bitter orange components. Drink alone or with vanilla ice cream.

    Tawny Port, "Galway Pipe", Trafford $22
    Aussie tawnies are sweeter than their Portuguese progenitors. Fermentation is stopped sooner, leaving a "chewy," mouth-filling drink with caramel, toffee and singed sensations.

    Framboise, Bonny Doon $13
    This perennial pleaser is a delicious, concentrated raspberry wine. A wonderful sipper at any time, in any season. It captures the freshness of just picked berries, with a concentration and warmth on the palate that is smile provoking.

    Amontillado Sherry Medium Dry, Pedro Domecq $15
    Sherry is so misunderstood, and that is understandable. It's made by a complicated process, and its final appearance depends mostly on how much sweet, Pedro Ximenez grape wine is added before bottling. This wine smells of hazelnuts and drinks with a light sweetness. A bitter end twinge gives a grip of energy.

    Amontillado "Rare Esquedrilla," Lustau $18.75
    Lustau's version is more extroverted and slightly drier than Domecq. A two-fisted style that's also good with dry cheeses and chowders. Where Domecq speaks eloquently, Lustau talks brash and Brooklyn. Sherry is certainly an acquired taste, and one worth learning. Considering the years and labor involved in production, sherry is a financial bargain.

    1996 Late Bottled Vintage Port, Cockburn's $20
    Like a Christmas spice cake: sophisticated sweetness. This type of port, usually shortened in nomenclature to LBV, is made in years when conditions are not quite up to snuff for making true vintage port. Aged four to six years, this retains a fresh grapiness, a round, juicy texture with excellent balance. A delicious item to aid in deciding whether you're a candidate for expensive, concentrated vintage port.

    Madeira, 5-year-old Bual, Cossart Gordon $21
    The Madeira process, where the wine is actually heated and is consequently "maderized," makes it practically indestructible. A year after it's opened, it's still delicious. Sweet, soft, smoky and not overly heavy, this wine has a special tang of acidity on the finish which keeps it fresh.

    All of these fortified wines should be served slightly chilled, but not as cold as the unfortified entries.

    • Dessert wines may be the most misunderstood wines of all. But tasting is all it takes to appreciate them

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