Dessert wines are often passed over because they are served at the end of a meal after other wines have been consumed and our full gullets have little room for anything else.
However, they have a place throughout the meal and can even make fine aperitifs.
Cheese goes very well with sweet wines and different savory dishes including foie gras, pate and spicy curries. While there is tremendous range when it comes to dessert wines, the one thing that all must have is enough acidity to balance the sugar; otherwise they will seem cloying and clunky on the palate.
Port is no doubt one of the most popular dessert wines.
But fortification, meaning that grape spirits or other types of alcohol are added during fermentation to kill yeast (which eats sugar) is a process also used making other wines, including sherry, Madeira, marsala and Muscat de Rivesaltes and Banyuls in the Roussillon. The latter, made from grenache or grenache blanc, is arguably the best wine to serve with chocolate. It can be as age-worthy as port for a far more reasonable price.
Next to port, sauternes is the best-known dessert wine. The sweet nectar from Bordeaux is affected by botrytis (a fungus that sucks the water out of a grape, thus creating greater intensity), giving it a honeyed, spicy, stone-fruit character. For less expensive versions, try the wines from Bordeaux’s neighbor, Saint Croix du Mont.
Late-harvest German rieslings also are treasured by collectors. Pricing varies depending on the time they are picked.
Eisweins, the latest picked near Christmas, are quite a bit pricier than beerenauslese they are harvested in November.
German dessert wines made from other grapes, including scheurebe, rieslaner and gewurztraminer, tend to be less expensive than riesling.
Vin Santo, first used for sacramental purposes, now finds a place alongside biscotti. Made in central Italy, usually from trebbiano and malvasia, it is oxidized in barrel and has a nutlike quality. It goes well with standard Italian cookies,honey-roasted nuts and toffee.
In the Veneto, reciotos made from both red and white grapes reign.
Recioto di Soave, composed of garganega, is a DOCG and can be a lovely accompaniment to fruit tarts as well as soft goat and blue cheeses. Recioto della Amarone or Recioto della Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinella and molinara, the same red grapes as the dry wines. It makes for an amazing pairing with gorgonzola, walnuts and figs. Did I say amazing? That might be an understatement.
Not to be outdone, Australia is famous for its stickies, historically those that were fortified, especially those made from muscat and muscadelle (which is sometimes called tokay). Both Australia and South Africa have a tradition of making port, sometimes employing traditional Portuguese grapes, sometimes not.
For great dessert wines from North America, the Finger Lakes of New York and Canada’s Niagara Peninsula have the climate to knock them out of the park, and often do, with ice wines made from riesling, vidal blanc and seyval blanc — the last two are North American hybrid grapes.
Bringing this sweet tour home to the West Coast, while individual wineries make good dessert wines, the only type unique to our state is late-harvest zinfandel.
Despite some obvious omissions in this roundup, the the dessert wines mentioned here should be fairly easy to find and are a great way to whet your sweet tooth.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.