Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the cellar. Not a creature was stirring, not
even this good fella’. The Gochiso Gourmet was nestled all snug in his bed, while visions of
Sauternes, Ausleses and Muscat danced in his head… Okay, I may have taken poetic license with
Clement Clarke Moore’s immortal poem but after we’ve had the hors d’eouvres, maybe a
charcuterie plate, the pasta course, the entrée and finally the cheese course. What’s left? One last
morsel to satisfy that sweet tooth. Well that last course doesn’t have to be a morsel, it could be
a liquid. And perhaps served along with the cheese course. What I’m talking about is dessert
wines, that luscious unctuous nectar of the Gods.
Is All Sweet Wine, Dessert Wine?
When residual sugar in wine reaches about 1.5%, most people can detect “sweetness” in the wine.
However, dessert wines usually contain much more than just sugar sweetness. They also have rich
ripe fruit concentration including a balancing acidity so that the sugar in the wine doesn’t tire
your palate. These flavor sensations can taste like an apricot or peach nectar. With a little bottle
time, this can change to lemon curd or fruit chutney and with many years (the best dessert
wines can easily age 100 years) you get caramelized qualities in your dessert beverage.
This is where the plot (and wine concentration) thickens. If you remember my column on
German Rieslings, you’ll remember that those luscious Ausleses, Beerenlausleses (BAs) and
Trockenbeerenausleses (TBAs) made from late harvest and edaufaule attacked berries produce
wines that make the palate sing. These wines are often too rich and concentrated for most foods
and therefore can star as desserts themselves. However, Riesling isn’t the only grape that
produces dessert wines.
You Say Muscat, I Say Moscato
This fragrant white grape is used throughout the world: Muscat in the States, Moscato in Italy’s
Asti Spumante, Moscatel in Spain and Beaumes de Venise in France. Suffice to say, it also
produces a wide range of alcoholic beverages from the Greek brandy, Metaxa to the fortified
sweet Portuguese wines, Moscatel de Setubal to the sparkling Asti Spumantes of Italy to the still
French wines, Beaumes de Venise to the concentrated ice wines of Bonny Doon’s Vin de
Glaciere. You get the picture.
While the Asti Spumantes may be great with spicy deep fried Asian cuisine and the Beaumes de
Venise may pair well with, ahem, fattened poultry liver, the dessert wine I’m talkin’ ‘bout is
found in your own backyard. In the Santa Cruz mountains no less. Randall Grahm of Bonny
Doon produces his own version of Eiswein (ripe grapes that naturally freeze on the vine in
Germany) that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. His Vin de Glaciere marries three variations of
Muscat grapes that are pressed after frozen to 10 degrees. While it’s not exactly German Eiswein,
it still can stand alone as the perfect ending to a great dinner (for about a tenth of the price).
Ferment the Furmint
That luscious dessert wine of Hungary, Tokaji (pronounced as if the “j” didn’t exist) is mainly a
combination of three grapes, Furmint, Muscat and Harslevelu. These Aszu wines (made from
grapes that are attacked by the same noble rot mold or edaufaule that produces Sauternes and
German BA and TBA wines) are run through a “paste” of especially concentrated grapes and
classified as from 3 to 6 “puttonyos” with a higher number indicating a sweeter, richer dessert
wine. These wines have aromas and flavors of almost all stone fruits – apricots, peaches,
nectarine along with pear, roasted nuts, honey and citrus peel. As if these wines weren’t sweet
enough, the free run juice (grape juice that naturally leaks from these grapes by its own weight)
of these bortrysized (moldy) grapes are collected to produce the dessert wine of all dessert wines
(the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of dessert wines) or Eszencia that are classified as 7 or 8
puttonyos. Because the sugar and acid levels in this grape juice practically inhibits bacterial and
mold growth (remember that yeast that produces wine is also a mold), these wines take
anywhere from 3 to 5 years to produce and only attain the alcohol level of light beer
(technically, they aren’t even wine). The final product is a sheer nectar of the gods.
Let That Zinfandel Hang Another Month!
America’s own grape not only produces a rich red wine that pairs with most foods but it also
produces a late harvest wine that almost rivals Port’s ability to dance with chocolate. I first tried
late harvest Zinfandel at the J. Fritz Winery (now just known as Fritz Winery) tucked into the
Sonoma hills. The tasting room actually had a bowl of chocolates that they encouraged tasters
to sample when sipping their late harvest Zinfandel. I was one who always felt that Cabernet was
NOT a wine to pair with chocolate so I naturally was skeptical with this Zinfandel, even if it was
a late harvest with a hefty amount of residual sugar. Was I wrong! The rich raspberry and
caramel flavors were like a natural sauce that coated and enhanced chocolate’s natural flavors. I
was an instant believer!
Though I still feel that aged Pedro Ximenez is chocolate’s perfect partner, late harvest Zinfandel
comes in a very close second. And several other wineries also produce a late harvest Zinfandel so
your options aren’t limited. Along with chocolate, late harvest Zinfandel also pairs very nicely
with assorted cheeses to end your favorite meal.
Try the Liquid Dessert
At your next dinner party, I encourage you to try (and serve) these liquid desserts. They are a lot
easier to prepare (just pop the cork or unscrew the Stelvin cap), are just as rich as any baked or
frozen treat and are fat and cholesterol free (they also are a lot lower in calories). Just make sure
you serve appropriate portions – roughly 2 ounce servings are more than sufficient. You may
find yourself chucking all of your baking pans and perhaps skipping the rest of the meal and
immediately serving these liquid treats to start and end the meal!