The idea that sweet wines go best with dessert is a no brainer, but producers of those wines would have you believe they go with anything and everything.
A century ago that was pretty much the case, when sweet Hungarian Tokaji, Portuguese Madeira and Port, Spanish sherries, Italian Marsalas and French Sauternes were enjoyed as much with savory dishes as with sweet. Champagnes, now preferred bone dry, were once much sweeter, from demi-sec (half dry) to doux (sweet).
The best sweet wines are made from grapes whose sugars have been concentrated by drying, partial freezing, late harvesting or infection by the so-called “Noble Rot.” Some, like Port and Sherry, are fortified with spirits to stabilize them.
The worst are made like fruit punch, with sugar and fruit infusions added. So in a world where Thunderbird outsells chardonnay and cabernet, people still associate sweet “dessert wines” with cheap plonk.
“The term dessert wine is a taboo today -- ‘dry’ is where it’s at,” said Daniel Johnnes, wine director for the Dinex Group in New York. “I direct my sommeliers not to list sweet wines as ‘dessert wines,’ and to discuss with the guest the varying degrees of sweetness between, say, a Sauternes and a lighter bodied Barsac. I think they go very well with certain braised meats with caramelized flavors.”
Such wines are a tough sell. Among Sauternes, only the illustrious Cru Chateau d’Yquem sells really well, often served with foie gras or Roquefort cheese.
“The contemporary attitude is that anything sweet is bad for you and will put on weight, which is absolute rubbish,” said David Levin, owner of The Capital Hotel and Restaurant in London. “It’s a mental block, so we really have to promote our sweet wines. We carry six vintages of Yquem half-bottles, which are far easier to sell than a whole bottle.”
Levin’s wife Lynne, who manages their wine estate in the Loire Valley, has just released half bottles of Levin Noble 2010, a botrytis-affected sauvignon blanc for sale in the U.K. Australia, and Sweden. “It’s got 60 grams residual sugar,” she said. “But the balance of acids allows it to go well with many different dishes, like a goat’s cheese salad.”
American wine producers are struggling too. According to Ken Young, executive director of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association in Appelgate, California, sweet wines now account for 7.5 percent of U.S. wine shipments. “Before 2008 we had sale increases around 6.2 percent annually, but since then it’s only around 2 percent. Sales are pretty flat for fortified wines, though late-harvest wines are doing pretty well.”
Barsac and Crab
So sweet wine makers are trying hard to prove their wines go with all sorts of savory dishes. At a dinner at Restaurant Daniel in New York, vigneron Aline Bal of Chateau Coutet, served her Barsacs with soft-shell crabs and pressed duck. French actress Carole Bouquet, who owns a winery on the Italian island of Pantelleria, last month served her Sangue d’Oro passito at New York’s Boulud Sud with first courses like octopus a la plancha with almonds, arugula, and sherry vinegar; and sheep’s milk ricotta with tomato confit, and tapenade.
Even the great Hungarian Tokaji wines, whose sweetness is graded by star-like symbols called puttonyos, have their place before and after dessert.
“The very sweet six-puttonyos Tokajis should be drunk after dessert, like a Cognac or Port,” said Ben Hawkins, director of Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Wine Co. and author of the just-released “Real Men Drink Port . . . and Ladies Do Too” (Wine Appreciation Guild, 192 pages, $24.95). “We blend three-and four-puttonyos wines to make an aged late harvest wine, which has more acidity, so they can be enjoyed with more savory dishes, like a three-year-old Gouda.”
I, too, would insist that sweet wines go better with cheeses than dry red wine. Whether it’s Port with Stilton, a late-harvest riesling with goat’s cheese, or a vin santo with Parmigiano, the flavors assimilate better than with cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, which may take on a metallic taste.
I also like sweet Chinese poultry dishes with sweet wines. Try a sweet rice or lychee wine with Peking duck or General Tso’s chicken. The French classic duck a l’orange is well served with a Lustau Sherry, and when feasting on sweet North African dishes like tagine and bisteeya, dry wines just don’t work. I’d go with a glass of ruby Port.
After dessert, curl up with a magnificent Silvano Garcia Dulce Monastrell 2001 ($30), a powerful argument for the individuality of Spain’s viticultural soul and perfect with sweet-fleshed roast chestnuts and a dish of figs before the fireplace.
And for something truly remarkable, make some scrambled eggs in butter with shavings of black truffles. Pour a glass of iced Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere Riesling 2010 ($16 half bottle), made in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Now, that is a decadent revelation indeed.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)