While entertaining during this season, many are ditching the traditional apple or pumpkin pie for a thoughtful fruit-and-cheese plate paired with a port-style or late-harvest dessert wine. The most famous and expensive dessert wines on the planet are from Sauternes and Barsac, south of Bordeaux France. For the past two years, the Chateau Climens Barsac 2013 ($68/97-pt) and the Chateau Coutet Barsac 2014 ($37/96-pt) are among Wine Spectator magazine’s top five releases worldwide. They are both a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon blanc, the same grapes used in the classic Bordeaux white wines. The difference lies in something nicknamed the “noble rot.”
Mold is a natural enemy in the vineyards and can quickly destroy plants. However, the renowned Sauternes are among those “botrytized” wines that oddly benefit from the encouragement of a mold called Botrytis Cinerea. High humidity makes the plant susceptible to the rot that, primarily during late growth, turns the grapes to raisins and sweetens the juice. Botrytis may sugarcoat the Sauternes, but they maintain the complex flavor profile and other attributes of traditional white wine from the region.
Although the Sauternes I have tasted are unmatched, the typical $50 to $75 per bottle cost is beyond mine and many budgets. Albeit difficult to dissuade someone from experiencing these great releases, common sense suggests that we look to more affordable and accessible choices in California. Pairing any of these dessert wines with rich cheeses, like Rogue River Bleu from southern Oregon or Point Reyes Bay Blue, with some sage honey and a bit of chocolate may draw you closer to nirvana.
Vincent Arroyo Winery in north Napa Valley has been producing their petite sirah port-style wine for more than 20 years in the authentic method of using grapes from one vintage only. Petite sirah is compatible with many palates and some of the best comes from this region. Clearly identified by a striking, silver-embossed label, one remaining 2012 Vincent Arroyo Port sits in my cellar. It is a rich, balanced, age-worthy port, and I trust the current vintage is as well.
After I first tasted the full-bodied 2010 Richard Longoria “Vino Dulce” Syrah Santa Barbara County ($23) paired with fine chocolate, I lost all self-control and had seconds. What I love about this port-style, single-varietal wine is that, although fortified, the complexities in the syrah are still evident. The spice aromas are protuberant, and the cherry flavors are baked, balanced and expressive.
Wines sourced from San Benito County vineyards are interesting because of the heavy limestone influence in their soil. Vista Verde Vineyard, south of Hollister, is a familiar one. The Williams Selyem Port Vista Verde Vineyard 2010 ($30) and previous vintages are rich and complex, aged 40 months in oak barrels. Look for fig and floral aromas, dark berries flavors with a nice “Snickers Bar” finish that romances the palate.
Last week at a dinner party with friends, I shared the Hungarian “botrytized” wine, Disznoko, Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2008 ($45), a classified first-growth release — and considered the finest wine in the Tokaji region. After initial hints of citrus, the other elaborate flavors melded into a potently polished rich mouthfeel. While this special after-dinner wine pairs well with a variety of cheeses and chocolates, it can be dessert on its own.
For those curious about Sauternes, I did a quick net search of local Bay Area wine outlets and found several priced in the $20 to $30 range. The top-rated wine was a 2001 Guiraud Sauternes ($60), which received a 96-pt rating from Wine Spectator and was on their “Top 100 Wines of 2004” list, describing flavors of “butterscotch and vanilla with hints of ripe apples.” It’s there for the taking, but, as we have discovered, there are many delectable options to choose from.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit Lyle’s blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at email@example.com.