The end of the family's 27-course holiday feast is in sight, and--extra calories be damned--you're ready to partake of the final act: a smorgasbord of delightful desserts, topped off by a splendid postprandial brandy. So you're not thrilled when a relative starts pouring wine. "Who wants dessert wine?" you mutter to yourself. "It's too sweet and syrupy."
Anyone who reacts in that way has probably never tasted a really top-notch dessert wine, say the oenophiles. According to Daniel Johnnes, wine director at New York's Montrachet restaurant: "Some of the greatest and most expensive wines in the world are sweet."
The landscape is dominated by German wines of the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese varieties, by Sauternes and Barsac from Bordeaux, and by Vouvray from France's Loire Valley. Connoisseurs often fancy fortified wines at the end of a meal, meaning a port, Madeira, or sherry. Chateau d'Yquem, a classic Sauternes, is widely considered the crown jewel of dessert wines and commands upward of $250 a bottle.
The lofty prices are often justified. Premier dessert wines require a lot of labor and an assist from Mother Nature. A fine Sauternes, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeer-enauslese, or Hungarian Tokay will benefit from a mold called botrytis cinerea or "noble rot." Grapes remain on the vine during the fall months and, given the right mix of fog and sunshine, are infected by botrytis. That makes them shrivel up as water evaporates through tiny holes in the skin, leaving behind a small amount of intensely sweet concentrated juice. "To get the right flavors, you need noble rot," says Robert Parker Jr., wine critic and publisher of The Wine Advocate. "But vintages are extremely important because it's the exception rather than the rule when you get it." Barsac, a township in the Sauternes district, for example, had three marvelous vintages from 1988 to 1990, says Parker, but since then, none that has quite measured up.
To make more sumptuous dessert wine, some winemakers may in addition let their grapes go through the deep freeze. Inniskillin, a vintner on Canada's Niagara Peninsula, produces a tasty variation known as icewine. Grapes that are left on the vine in December and January are dehydrated through constant freezing and thawing, thus concentrating sugars and acids. The frozen grapes are picked by hand and pressed in the cold. The result is a delicious wine not overpoweringly sweet. Inniskillin's icewine comes in half-bottles costing about $45.
You don't always have to spend a lot of loot to uncork terrific dessert wine. Parker gives high marks to the sweetly perfumed Beaumes de Venise wines from the muscat grape that cost $15 to $30 a bottle. New York wine merchant Peter Morrell advises bargain seekers to try the Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois from southwestern France ($9 for a half-bottle), a light, crisp wine with hints of coconut, apricot, and peach. If you're willing to splurge, Morrell raves about a 1965 Portuguese wine called Setubal Superior from Jose Maria da Fonseca. It costs $50 in a 500-ml bottle, features the flavors of caramel, oranges, raisins, and prunes, and has a long, succulent aftertaste.
Although not of the best quality, look-alike Sauternes from nearby appellations such as Cerons, Loupiac, and Cadillac can also provide good value, says Johnnes. He also recommends semisweet wines from Alsace labeled vendange tardive (late harvest) and sweet wines from the Anjou area in the Loire, including Coteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux.
RECORKABLE. While many sweet wines mix well with creme brlee or fruity desserts, chocoholics shouldn't feel discriminated against. You can pair chocolates with port, Madeira, or Banyuls--a sweet red wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon area of southern France.
After a hearty meal, you probably wouldn't want more than a single glass of even the finest dessert wine. A half-bottle can satisfy four to six people, says Ed Lehrman, president of Passport Wine Club in Novoto, Calif. What's more, you can often keep opened dessert wines around much longer than table wines, provided you store them in the fridge. So if you give a good dessert wine as a gift, you know it can be appreciated throughout the holiday season.