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Dessert wines for the holidays

For Foodcast, early December 2006

Hello, Tina here again. Let’s talk about dessert wines for the holidays.

Now, in the mid-20th century in the US, sweet wines far outranked dry wines as far as production and consumption. In the years since, that trend has reversed, and now I think few Americans know much about dessert wines. So let’s take them out and play again, shall we?

Dessert wines come in a variety just as wide and confusing as dry wines, so I’ll just mention a few of the most available kinds and then you can get out there and try them yourself.

First, the classics—ports and sherries from Portugal and Spain.

 Ports have been produced for centuries in Portugal, from grape varieties such as Touriga and Tinta Cao that are unique to that region of the world, except for a few growers in the US and other parts of the world who are testing them out here. As a consumer, all you really need to know to get started, are the two basic styles of Ports—ruby and tawny. As their names suggest, they differ by color, and this is a guideline to their flavors as well. Ruby ports are dark, rich red, and their flavors are sweetly, richly fruity. Tawny ports are a deep brown caramelly color, and their flavors range from almost brandy-like to very sweetly caramel, with notes of vanilla and cinnamon. The tawny’s are some of my personal favorites.

In the US, a large number of wineries are making wines labeled Port, only they are making them with non-Port grapes such as Zinfandels, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, even Merlot and Cabernet grapes. These are all Ruby ports as far as color and flavor profiles. Some grapes, in my opinion, make better Ports than others, and among my favorites are Syrah and Petite Sirah ports from US producers.

Australian wineries are making some wonderful Tawny and Ruby ports, both from traditional Portugese grapes and from Syrahs and other red grapes normally seen in dry wines. One terrific example of an Australian Tawny port at a steal of a price is Hardy’s Whiskers Blake, which retails in my home state of CA at about $11/bottle.

With sherries from Spain, you want to be careful that you are choosing a sweet Sherry and not a dry one, since they come in the full range from light, dry aperitif wines to full sweet dessert wines. Your wine retailer will be happy to help if you ask which are which.

Also in the realm of dessert wines, are the wines labeled “Late Harvest’, for instance, a Late harvest Chardonnay or a Late harvest Sauvignon blanc or Zinfandel. These dessert wines are made by picking the grapes well after the rest of harvest is over, when the berries have begun to shrivel on the vine and the sweetness becomes extremely concentrated. With higher sugars, you naturally also get higher alcohol on these wines, without having to fortify them during fermentation with injections of brandy or other distilled spirits, which is how Ports are made.

Late harvest white wines are liquid gold, literally. They are the most marvelous color, and can be very sweet and silky to drink. Just wonderful. Arrowood Winery occasionally makes a late harvest Chardonnay from a vineyard they call the Hoot Owl vineyard, and this is a wine to look for if you want the very best of late harvest dessert wines.

The most extreme of Late Harvest wines are called Ice Wines, and the grapes are literally picked so late that frost or snow has to be brushed off. Ice Wines are made in parts north, such as Canada, whose Ontario region is justifiably famous for them, upper New York state, and in northern Germany, where the product is still pronounced “ice wine” but is spelled in German—E-i-s-w-e-i-n. These are deep gold, smooth, almost syrupy wines, very rich and delicious.

You can also get an amazing number of fruit and berry dessert wines, and they are especially great in states which do not produce wine grapes. There are even honey wines and meads. Bonny Doon Vineyards in CA makes a wine called Framboise from raspberries that I just love. If you have a winery in your neck of the woods—from Maine to Kentucky, Alabama, Colorado, and so many others, making a fruit or berry wine instead of a grape-based wine, give it a try. I bet you’ll love it!

And then there are a very few producers who specialize in unusual dessert wines, such as Andy Quady’s winery in central CA. Quady makes a wide variety of dessert wines that are available in wine shops, and I’ve seen them in national chain stores such as Cost Plus World Market. Quady likes to joke that he’s been trying to go broke for 20 years making high-quality dessert wines, which can be expensive and demanding to produce and often need to age for many years. But his wines are worth all his effort, and I highly recommend them.

Now you’re armed with info about the wines, and what are you supposed to do with them?! Well, drink them of course! Dessert wines can be dessert in themselves, but can also be paired with desserts and other foods with delicious results. They are very sweet and high in alcohol, so if you’ve ever wondered why they’re served in those teeeeny tiny glasses, that’s why. A little goes a long way.

Ever heard of the old English tradition of Stilton and port? Well, try some blue cheese with a glass of port, and suddenly you’ll know why it became a tradition. Different cheeses and nuts, paired with dessert wines, make a wonderful after-dinner course for parties. Try dribbling good honey over a plate containing goat cheese, toasted nuts and slices of fresh green apple. Eat with your favorite dessert wine and you can die happy.

Some pairings that I would recommend of desserts with dessert wines, are fruit and berry wines with white and yellow cakes and cheesecakes (you can drink the dessert wine or, seriously, you can pour it over the cake and eat it), and Tawny ports with spice cakes and pies such as carrot cake and pumpkin pie. I had a Zinfandel port recently with a chocolate fondue and that was heavenly. Try some of these combinations for yourself, and then try them out on your friends and family.

Now, dessert wines have a huge number of uses during the holidays besides being great to drink. I’ve got several ideas to share, for holiday gift-giving with dessert wines, so tune in next time.

Dessert Wines, Part 2

Show Notes