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Dessert Wines 101

To fortify, or not to fortify, that is the question. Dessert wines and fortified wines have been made and consumed for hundreds of years, some of the first ones originating in places you might never assume — Cyprus, South Africa, and Hungary. These styles became popular by kings and queens when sugar was a luxury. Nowadays, sugar is much more accessible to the general populous, but the enchanting properties of these dessert wines haven’t changed.

The common styles of dessert wines are botrytis/late harvest, dried grapes, ice wine, sparkling and fortified. Botrytis and late harvest wines refer to wines such as German Spatlese, Hungarian Tokaji, and Sauternes. The dried grape method is a very old, traditional style, used mostly in Italy, Greece, and France; styles such as Passito, Vin Santo, and Vin de Paille are the most commonly found styles of this type. Ice wines only occur in the coldest wine-growing areas of the world, predominantly Germany and Canada, where the conditions are optimal. Sparkling dessert wines tend to be on the lighter side of the sweet spectrum — these lead to the likes of Moscato d’Asti and Vouvray. Fortified wines tend to be slightly higher alcohol, as a neutral spirit (mostly brandy) is added to the wine, which brings up the alcohol content. Fortified wines are also much harder to destroy by leaving open, as they tend to have a much longer life cycle due to their higher alcohol content.

Now don’t tell me you don’t like sweet wine . . . How do you take your coffee? Your iced tea? Your lemonade? Most add sugar to balance out the bitter taste. The same principle applies to wine — sugar is necessary to balance out the acid in wine. As a reference point, Cheerwine has about 47 grams per Liter of sugar, whereas Coca Cola has about 110 g/L. We have a small, but mighty, selection of dessert wines for your perusal, but here are some of my current favorites.

DESSERT:
Heinz Eifel Beerenauslese 2015 $21 at 11% ABV (about 140 g/L of sugar)
2015 was one of the glorious vintages to be affected by our dear funghi friend, noble rot. Every year, vintners pray for the right combination of environmental factors to bring botrytis cinerea into the vineyards. Noble rot lends those decadent, tropical and honeyed tones to some of the most famous dessert wines: Sauternes, Tokaji, Constantia. This Beerenauslese is made from Silvaner grapes, which was once one of the most planted grapes in Germany and has been around for at least 300 years. Silvaner tends to lend more herbal notes to the palate, but will still be quite rich in honey and candied ginger. Enjoy this with aged cheeses (Gouda, Parmesan, White Cheddar), fruit tarts, custard pies, cream puffs or cheesecakes.

FORTIFIED:
Campbells Rutherglen Muscat $22 at 17% ABV (about 200 g/L of sugar)
Tokay or Topaque has been an historical wine style made in the Rutherglen region of Australia since the mid 1800s. Rutherglen muscat and muscadelle grapes have been produced into a range of five different classifications, ranging from classic to rare, not dissimilar to the variety of styles found within the Port family. It is said the name Tokay was given to the wines due to the similarity of those coming from the Tokaji region of Hungary — some of the oldest and well-known styles of dessert wine. The Tokay name has since been phased out, and is more commonly referred to Topaque. The grapes are left on the vine to raisinate which brings up the sugar level. To keep up with the house style, the Solera system is used — current vintage juice is blended with previous years’ wine, sometimes, with vintages up to 30 years-old. This style typically shows notes of honey, black tea, toffee, and candied fruit. As the Australians would call it, drink this ‘sticky’ with honey-drizzled baked brie, fruit cake, or coffee or fruit-based desserts.

Fonseca “Terra Bella” Organic Ruby Port $27 at 20% ABV (about 96 g/L of sugar)
Port continues to be one of the most well-known fortified dessert wine styles. Ruby and Tawny are the more common styles consumed, where Ruby lends more fruit tones, and Tawny tends to be nuttier in flavor. Port wine is a blend of traditional grapes not generally well-known outside of Portugal, but their union is remarkable. This plot of land in the Douro Valley has been organically tended to since the early 1990s, and happens to be the first organic Port certified by the USDA. Believe it or not, when making Port, it is still a very traditional winemaking method to squish grapes by foot. Fonseca was one of the first wineries to use “Port Toes”, a robotic technology that mimics the pressure of pressing grapes by foot, just without the extra labor. (If you need a refresher course, watch the I Love Lucy episode where she hops in to help!) Think plums, black cherry, bramble and spice. Savor this with bleu cheeses, chocolate desserts, trifles and yule logs.

– Laura, Fearrington Sommelier