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Handmade in an array of styles and great on their own or with a surprising range of foods, Sarah Jane Evans MW urges us to befriend sweet wines
The meal draws to an end and the sommelier brings out the little dessert menu. ‘Have you got room for a crème brûlée or a chocolate fondant?’ Perhaps not, but be sure to look at the dessert wines on offer. This is where the fun in the meal really starts. Sweet wines are the Smythsons of the wine world: handmade (there are no short cuts in sweet winemaking), often sold in small sizes, and improving with age. They are brilliant by themselves, and even better with food, where they can make unexpected matches.
There are two ways of making a sweet wine: the first is to let the grapes do the work; the second is to intervene, by drying or freezing them, or stopping the fermentation. Adding sugar (or concentrated grape juice) – a method permitted in some places for improving dry and off-dry wines – is not allowed. But whichever method is used, the essence of a great sweet wine is plenty of natural acidity to match the sugar.
Let’s start with the natural method. The easiest way is to leave selected healthy bunches on the vine later to ripen just a little more. These are ‘late harvest’ wines. Vendange tardive is a speciality of Alsace, where the wines range in style from a little richer than normal to a polished succulence. Try a Vendange tardive with ham and sweet mustard.
Producers with vineyards in low-lying areas, near lakes and rivers, where mists are slow to clear, will be familiar with botrytis – a crusty rot that attacks the grapes and pierces the skins so that the water inside drips out, leaving the natural sugar. Only top producers in Bordeaux’s Sauternes or Hungary’s Tokaji (pronounced ‘tock-aye’) can afford to send pickers into the vineyard to pick the grapes, berry by berry, up to seven times. Other top places for botrytis are the Loire Valley and Australia’s Riverland, where De Bortoli’s Noble One is made.
With all the rot on the grapes, it is very difficult to make a clean wine. But the result is worth the effort, bringing golden colours, fabulously concentrated fruit and a silky texture. The distinctive character of botrytis is its aromas of marmalade and caramelised apricot. Botrytis wines are typically eaten with foie gras, but they are brilliant with creamy blue cheeses.
Germany and Austria produce world-class wines across both the late harvest and botrytis categories, with slightly differing classification systems. German sweeties can have an exceptional delicacy and are best served with fruity puds. An apple charlotte, with a fluff of puréed Bramleys and a caramel, buttery breadcrumb crust, has a similar flavour profile.
In a cold year, Germany also makes Eiswein, using grapes picked in December – when it’s -8°C or below – that have usually escaped botrytis rot. The water inside the grapes freezes, leaving the sugar and a punchy acidity. Made in tiny quantities, this is ideal for sipping. Canada too makes Icewine from red varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as from white grapes. These are exceptionally sweet wines, with more richness in the mouth. The red versions are very good with chocolate chip ice cream. Ice wine styles can also be created from human intervention. Cryoextraction – freezing the bunches after harvest to mimic ice wine – is accepted in many regions.
Vin Doux Naturel
A classic intervention in winemaking is to stop fermentation before all the sugar has been turned into alcohol by adding spirit. This is the process used to make port. On the Mediterranean, around Banyuls and Collioure and north towards Perpignan, the Vins Doux Naturels are perfect food wines. Those based on the red Grenache grape – such as Maury – are perfect with dark chocolate tarts served with a berry coulis.
Also in the category of stopped-fermentation wines are the sweet, low-alcohol fizzes, particularly of Italy. Their fruitiness will match the sweetest of challenges – from Christmas cake to white chocolate mousse.
Raisined grapes also make sensational wines: whether raisined on the vine or dried on mats outside or shelves indoors. These are serious sweeties: a treacly PX from Jerez will have the equivalent of 80 teaspoons of sugar per litre. Perfect with a chilly ice cream.
Time for a treat
Concha y Toro Late Harvest 2007
Maule Valley, Chile, £5.99/37.5cl, Majestic
Lightly honeyed, with notes of papaya and banana; made for summertime.
Quarts de Chaume 2007
Sélection Grains Nobles, Château Pierre Bise, Loire, France
£35/50cl, Lea & Sandeman
Astonishingly tangy and sumptuous, a hand selection of the very finest Chenin Blanc. Hence the price.
Graacher Himelreich Riesling Goldkapsel Auslese JJ Prum 2006
Mosel, Germany, £40, Majestic
Top wine (Goldkapsel) from top producer in top vineyard; a riot of ripe apples, peaches, and orange blossom, yet intensely delicate.
Vin de Constance 2005
Klein Constantia, Constantia, South Africa, £30/50cl, Majestic Fine Wines
Once Jane Austen’s favourite and now revived; rich with orange peel, caramel and spice.
Inniskillin Sparkling Icewine 2006
Canada, £44/37.5cl, waitrosewine.com
This makes a remarkable gift – a tiny bottle of the sweetest of sparkling wines. A curiosity, but full of fun.
Vin Doux Naturel
Samos Anthemis 2003
Greece, £11.50, thewinesociety.com
From the island co-operative of Samos, a fortified Muscat with notes of orange and burnt caramel.
A Mano Aleatico Passito 2007
Apulia, Italy, £16, www.greenandbluewines.com
North American winemaking meets Italian tradition to create a sweetie from raisined red Muscat, with just a note of tannin.
Serving note Remember that all sweet wines are much more palatable cool or chilled. They can always warm up in the glass.