Thursday, October 3, 2002
Banyuls, Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes, Moscato d''Asti...what the...?
Dessert wines, baby. Liquid panty removers. Nectar of the gods. Nature''s reward for the multiple components of patience, risk, delicacy, care, skill and a little luck--luck that the wines can even be made, and luck that you get to drink them.
When grapes stay on the vines past the point of maturity, they start to get overripe and shrivel (no wisecracks). The water in the grapes begins to evaporate, especially when a magnificent little fungus called Botrytis Cinerea (affectionately known as "noble rot") goes to work on them. Then, if the birds, animals, nasty weather or just gravity don''t get the grapes first, select individual berries can be gently plucked and pressed, yielding miniscule amounts of precious, concentrated, ultra-sweet juice that, under the watchful eye of a talented winemaker, becomes the delightful drink known as dessert wine.
These wines are made wherever there is wine. Some say the first was Tokaji Aszu, made in Hungary. Some say Germany produced the first ones. I''m sure the Romans must have been messing around with them as well. Suffice it to say, wherever and whenever folks were growing grapes and making wine, they were figuring out how to use the overripe ones.
Here in the US, dessert wines have become increasingly popular. Raised on diets of soft drinks and other sugar-rich foods, the transition to sweet wines is a natural for us. However, unlike much of the sickeningly sweet plonk that captivated popular palates in the past, most late harvest wines today are lovely examples of natural sweetness from the grape balanced by acidity and minerality, making them truly fine wines.
Peruse any decent restaurant wine list and notice the increased selection of late harvest wines, to go along with the usual Port and Cognac choices. In addition, fine Madeiras and Sherries are occasionally rounding out the fortified list. Fortified wine is made by adding neutral grape brandy to the wine either during fermentation, as in Port, or after fermentation, as with Sherry. The result is an added bit of punch to help carry the sweetness, which brings the wines up to about 20 percent alcohol.
True Sherry comes from Southern Spain, Port (more properly, Porto) from Portugal, and Madeira from the Portugese island of, you guessed it, Madeira. Madeira is the beverage that was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence--and you thought our forefathers were squares. Although there are some genuinely well made California and Australian Port-styled wines, exploration of the genre must begin at the source. The Italians make a beautiful fortified wine in the city of Marsala--not to be confused with the insipid jug-style American wine of the same name available for five dollars a bottle in the supermarket--and the French add a little fortification to some Banyuls and Beaumes-de-Venise appellation beauties.
As a rule, good dessert wines are pricier than regular wines. Firstly, there is risk involved. Only the best individual berries must be picked, one at a time. There is little yield, since much of the fruit is unusable. Supposedly in the best dessert wines, like Chateau d''Yquem (the Holy Grail of late harvest) in Sauternes, it takes a whole vine to yield one small glass of wine. Teams of pickers must repeatedly comb the vines for the perfect grapes, over a period of a couple of weeks.
Sweet dessert-style wines make phenomenal companions to certain dishes or may be drunk by themselves, acting as the dessert itself. According to Calvin Wilkes of Fifi''s Cafe and Bistro in Pacific Grove (a man who orchestrates wine dinners like Toscanini), the four classic dessert wine/food combos are as follows: Pedro Ximenez (Sherry) over vanilla and rum raisin ice cream; Australian Muscat with chocolate; Sauternes with Foie Gras; Sweet Vouvray (made from Chenin Blanc) with Cheddar cheese and apples.
Regardless of what you drink them with, dessert wines from around the world offer an exciting taste sensation. Try it and see.