By Charlie Palmer, CSW
This is the first of what will hopefully be a monthly column on food and wine. I live here on the Eastern Shore and have travelled North America teaching wine workshops, hosting wine dinners for private clients, and training sommeliers, waiters, and bartenders.
In honor of the holiday season, I'd like to introduce you to the world of dessert wines. They are fun and delicious, and they can help make holiday gatherings very special. They also make unique gifts.
Dessert (or "after dinner") wines are special fermented beverages characterized by their sweetness, rich "mouth-feel", and (typically) higher alcohol. Beyond those primary characteristics, there are secondary traits such as flavors, colors, and aromas. At the most basic level, a dessert wine is a deliciously sweet drink which goes great with various foods either at the end of a meal, or even just any time that you want to create a luxurious holiday experience for family and friends.
The Three Main Families of Dessert Wines
Fortified Wines - This group of deliciousness includes famous dessert wines such as Port, Madeira, Sherry, and Marsala. The word "fortified" refers to the fact that these wines are indeed fortified by the addition of Brandy during the fermentation process. This fortification essentially has two results. First, it interrupts the fermentation process before the yeast can consume too much of the sugar in the grape juice (which is becoming the wine). That "residual sugar" makes the wines thick and sweet (and delicious). Second, the addition of the brandy boosts the alcohol content, which of course is not a bad thing either. Fortified wines are usually fairly dark in color, and often taste like various types of dried fruit. When you buy a Madeira, Sherry, or Marsala, ask for the sweeter versions.
Late Harvest Wines - This family of wines gets their sweetness by the fact that the winemaker will allow the grapes to ripen on the vine as late in the year as possible. More grape ripeness means more sugar in the grape juice. Here in Canada, we take pride in what many consider to be the "king" of late harvest wines: Icewine. There are a number of Nova Scotia wineries that produce absolutely delicious examples of Icewine. As the name implies, the grapes are allowed to remain on the vine so late that they actually freeze prior to harvest. Late harvest wines are often lighter in color than fortified wines and have flavors that run from apricot to pear to dried fruit.
Botrytised Wine - These wines are quite unique by the fact that they are made from grapes that have a fungus growing on them called "Botrytis" (also known as "the noble rot). This beneficial fungus causes the grapes to lose moisture, which concentrates the sugar and flavor compounds. In addition to super-charging the sweetness, the botrytis fungus also imparts an essence of honeysuckle into the other wonderful flavors in the wine. These wines are usually a beautiful golden or amber color. Examples of world famous botrytised wines include Sauternes from France, and Tokaji from Hungary.
Foods that pair well with dessert wines include cheese (particularly blue cheese), honey (and honeycomb), fruits such as grapes, apples, and pears. Jams, chutneys, and preserves (like fig preserves). Chocolates, cakes, pies, cookies. The key here is to experiment by combining 2 or more foods in your mouth at the same time and then taking a sip of dessert wine and then buckle up for the flavor ride of your life.
For example, on an un-seasoned cracker or a mild cookie, combine some cheddar cheese and a piece of honeycomb, or on a slice of apple or pear, combine some fig preserves and blue cheese, pop one of those combos in your mouth and then immediately sip some port or sweet Madeira or Icewine. Engage your guests to experiment like this and make discoveries of their own. Most of all, have tons of delicious fun throughout the holiday season and beyond with dessert wines.
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays