Dessert. Wine. No doubt these are two of the best words in the English language. Therefore, it should come as no shock that when you pair one with the other, the end results are something equally as sumptuous. Dessert wines should always have a place in any oenophile’s home.
There are numerous ways in which vintners can manipulate the traditional method of making still wine, in order to create sweet wines. You may add alcohol to wine to fortify them and stop fermentation. Grapes can be left to freeze into the winter to concentrate the sugars. Sometimes, winemakers will allow fungus to attack the grape in a controlled manner to help intensify their sweetness.
Over this article we will look into some of the most famous examples of dessert wines in the world. These are the dessert wines to enjoy after a big meal and leave you with that warming feeling that all is well in the world.
Let’s begin with Ice wine, often seen in its German form of ‘Eiswein’. Eiswein being one of the six categories within German wine. A deeper dive into all things German wine is available here. Regardless, this dessert wine is not simply wine with ice added to it. The name actually hides a far more labour intensive and risky process. Ice wine is one of the most unique styles of dessert wine.
To get Eiswein grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine. This in and of itself is a large risk. There is no guarantee that the grapes will freeze before they have rotted. However, even if they do freeze over, this creates a scenario where the winemakers may not be able to extract any juice from the small grape-sized bullets.
While the whole process may sound like a lot of hassle, there is a method to the madness. Sugars in these grapes do not freeze, only the water does. So, when the vintner presses the grapes they won’t produce as much liquid as their unfrozen relative. Yet, what they do produce is deliciously sweet dessert wine.
Unsurprisingly, the process can only happen in very specialised circumstances and very few nations reliably and regularly produce Eiswein. Canada leads the way in production of Eiswein globally. However, it began to be consistently produced in Germany in the 1960s.
Germany no doubt took to making it as they already had an abundance of the perfect grape for the job. Riesling grapes, (a German staple), were the perfect vessel for the production of these dessert wines. The high level of acidity leaves the wine feeling balanced, in spite of the increased sweetness. Not only this, but the Riesling’s penchant for cooler climates mean it has more of a chance to withstand the cold winters.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Eiswein Riesling
Riesling varies greatly from region to region. For example, Alsace Riesling very often tends to be dryer and more floral, than their German or Austrian equivalents. Riesling can span from dry to very sweet. Eiswein, while not the sweetest Riesling style, is still on the sweeter side of things.
Eiswein will generally display an intense fruitiness. Citrus notes of limes may be present, however you can expect to have far more pronounced tropical fruit flavours. Mango, Melon, Pineapple or Passionfruit may all be detectable.
This could also be the case with a number of Rieslings which aren’t subjected to the freezing temperatures of this particular dessert wine. What really shines out in the Eiswein on top of the tropical notes are rich flavours of honey. That’s really where the dessert wines aspect announces itself.
It is for these reasons that I would suggest pairing a delicious Eiswein dessert wine with this ‘Salted Honey Pie’. This really is the perfect culinary companion. The sweetness of the dessert wine pairs with the strong honey flavours of the pie. However, the addition of that touch of salt will cut through both, stopping it from being too sickly sweet.
Botrytis (Noble Rot)
Noble Rot may sound more like what a Plantagenet King died from, rather than a method of producing dessert wine. However, Botrytis is frequently used as a method of production in a number of great dessert wines. These include, late-harvest Riesling, Sauternes and Tokaji Azsú.
The unappealing name of ‘noble rot’ is when the fungus, (Botrytis), attacks the skin of the grapes. In doing so, it makes tiny little holes on the surface. These holes allow water to evaporate and escape. This leaves behind the concentrated sugars, allowing for a sweeter dessert wine to be the fruits of the harvest. The perfect conditions for this fungus to work its magic are vineyards with dewey, cold and damp mornings which quickly dry in the sun.
First on our list of wines, who were born from the noble rot, is Sauternes. Sauternes is not only a dessert wine, it is itself a small sub-region within the Bordeaux region of France. Sauternes produces some of the most revered and eye-wateringly expensive dessert wines around. I wouldn’t recommend your first foray into the world of Sauternes is a bottle that costs over £500. However, there are options out there which are delicious and easier on the bank account.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Sauternes
The Sémillon grape, which Sauternes is made from, has a tremendous ageing potential. A young example of this grape may have a herbaceous kick with notes of apple and lemon, when aged it can take on a whole new character. The apple and lemon notes develop into apricot. The presence of oak in the maturation process imparts rich vanilla and smoke. Then finally, when left to age in the bottle even more complexity is added to the mix. Caramel, honey, dried fruit can all be tasted in these more complex examples.
This want for complexity is what drives prices up. The best vintages can be fantastic examples of the full potential of the Sauternes dessert wine. However, you don’t need to pay staggering sums to secure a sumptuous Sauternes. Younger and more affordable examples will still give you a sweet honey and ginger kick, backed up by a rich fruitiness and often aromas of orange marmalade.
Based on the above, the recommended food pairing will come as no surprise and is sure to be a pudding to make Paddington proud. Introducing the ‘Marmalade and ginger upside-down pudding’. This rich caramelised top of this dessert will combine with the silky sweet dessert wine that is Sauternes. Certainly one to get your sweet tooth going.
Tokaji Azsú is another dessert wine made through the careful monitoring of Botrytis. Tokaj is a region in North-East Hungary. Tokaj is Hungary’s most iconic wine region and has a microclimate which provides the perfect conditions for the noble rot.
Like so many things in the world of food and drink, Tokaji Azsú was born out of an accident. The story is that the Princess, (and vintner), Zsuzsanna Lórántffy decided to postpone the harvest of her family vineyard, due to the threat of an invading Turkish army. When they finally had the chance to harvest, the grapes had become shrivelled from Botrytis. Clearly, not one to waste a crop they used them and Tokaji Azsú was born. Undoubtedly the process has become more nuanced and refined. This in turn contributed to a higher standard of final product, which we enjoy today.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Tokaji Azsú
Tokaji Azsú dessert wine comes from the Furmint grape. Furmint is found throughout Hungary and is the most widely planted grape in Tokaj. It is naturally susceptible to Botrytis and has a high level of acidity to help balance out the final product, (similar to the Riesling in Eiswein). Although, without a doubt, Tokaji Azsú is always sweet. The degree to which it is sweet can vary though. The key word to be on the lookout for is ‘Puttonyos’. This indicates the level of sweetness. The higher the number, the sweeter the drink.
In terms of flavours, Tokaji Azsú will likely exhibit strong stone fruit flavours. Both fresh and dried, apricots and peaches will present themselves. Another key element to Tokaji Azsú production is the significant period of time it spends in oak. So, here you’re going to get big hits of vanilla, smoke and caramel. Well-balanced, delightfully rich and complex. This dessert wine is up there with the very best of them.
For a food pairing, I’d recommend a peach crumble. Classic and simple and no doubt the combination of stone fruit and caramelised sugar crust will match a Tokaji Azsú perfectly. Add on a huge scoop of vanilla ice-cream to really treat the child within you.
If you’re really feeling adventurous, then there is the potential to smoke your ice-cream. It may take away from the rustic simplicity of the peach crumble, but if you’re so gastronomically inclined then see a smoked ice cream method here – to really make sure all parts of the Tokaji Azsú are being matched.
Fortification is another process through which vintners make sweet dessert wines. Fortification produces some of the more familiar dessert wines. The ones we will cover are Sherry, Port and the lesser known Pineau des Charentes.
Essentially, fortification is where winemakers add further alcohol to the wine, as it is still fermenting. This brings the ABV, (Alcohol by Volume), up to around 15-20%. In doing so, the yeast in the wine is killed before it has a chance to eat up all the sugar present. This leaves behind a greater degree of residual sugar than you have in regular wine, leaving a sweeter and more alcoholic beverage.
We at Savage Vines are big proponents of Sherry, in all its forms. If you want a comprehensive overview then it’s available here, tasting profiles are here, as well as the best glassware here. However, our focus here will be the sweetest of the sweets, Pedro Ximénez. The truest dessert wine from the bunch, but all sherry should be a welcome treat after a meal.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Pedro Ximénez Sherry
Pedro Ximénez is a rich and decadent dessert wine. Vintners will make Pedro Ximénez sherry through the sun-drying of the Pedro Ximénez grapes, to the point where they are almost akin to raisins. Sun-drying here concentrates the flavour and sugar within the grape helping to give it, that dessert wine kick. They will then press these dry grapes multiple times. The resulting grape must begins to ferment at a rapid pace, due to its high sugar content. So, vintners will add alcohol to slow down the process and the end result is a fortified wine at around 16% ABV.
The sherry will then age in a system known as a solera. The solera is essentially a system of old oak casks. These casks will contain wines of different vintages. They are then continually blended together, throughout their ageing process. Vintners will do this to ensure both consistency and complexity within the mature wine. At this point, a number of distinctive sherry flavours will develop via oxidation. With Pedro Ximénez, these tend to be a number of different dried fruits, such as; figs, prunes, raisins, dates.
To eat alongside the delicious sherry, I would recommend two separate dishes to pick at. Honey Roasted Figs & Baklava. This mix of dried fruit, honey and nuts really is something special. The best granola you could every imagine! A drink from the West of Europe and food from the East of Europe. A magnificent mix of Mediterranean culinary treats. Treats that I could keep eating and drinking for far longer than I probably should.
Next up on our tour of fortified wine is the Portuguese Port. Another delicious dessert wine, from the Upper part of the Douro Valley. Traditionally, this is a blend of local Portuguese black grapes and in most cases a blend of different vintages. All port will then fortify, through the addition of a grape spirit. This kills the yeast in the existent mixture, leaving a sweet and high alcohol liquid. This liquid then matures in oak for varying degrees of time.
There are different forms of port. Ruby-Style, the most common and less aged version of port. Vintage Port which is the rarest and most expensive. Vintage Ports are not released every year. Vintners declare a Vintage Port, only when the vintage is of a particular high calibre. They make them from grapes from that vintage alone and have the potential to age for upwards of 20 years in the bottle. Finally, are the Tawny Ports. These age in small barrels for either 10, 20, 30 and 40 year periods. During this time, the port takes on a deep brown colour. Our focus will be the ruby-style.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Ruby-Style Port
Port in many respects is relatively similar in taste to a number of traditional red wines. You will get rich flavours of cooked black fruits, with a hint of peppery spice. There are variations of Ruby-Style Port which can provide a more complex and intense flavour. These are Reserve and LBV, (Late Bottled Vintage). Reserve indicating longer maturing time and LBV containing wine from a single vintage.
For the dessert to go with this dessert wine, it’s no other than the classic British dish – Summer Pudding. All the tart acidity that goes with the abundance of fresher black and red fruit will be balanced by the rich and syrupy sweet cooked fruit aromas that the Ruby-Style Port will provide. Red and black fruit flavours on both sides of the spectrum in one amazing course.
Pineau des Charentes
Finally, but certainly not to be forgotten, is Pineau des Charentes. Pineau des Charentes dessert wine may not have found as much of a place on supermarket shelves and drinks menus as some of the sweeter wines previously mentioned, but this is an egregious mistake on our part. Pineau is wine fortified with Cognac and if that doesn’t sound delicious, then what does?
Supposedly, in the late 16th century, a French winemaker added grape must to a barrel that he thought was empty. However, little did he know the barrel contained a healthy amount of brandy. The barrel was then put in storage. In storage, it ferments just like any other barrel of grape must. Then, they took it out of storage and realised what a wonderful mistake they’d made.
Pineau is available in multiple varieties. Either white, often through the blending of Sémillon or Sauvignon Blanc. Or red and rose, (which is our focus), frequently made through blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. All of the above being key grapes from the Bordeaux region, where Pineau des Charentes is also from.
Tasting Profile & Food Pairing – Pineau des Charentes Rouge
If you’ve ever had Cognac, or any type of Brandy, Pineau will likely have a familiar flavour and appearance. It’s a colour reminiscent of ambergris, but smoother and less intense in flavour. The addition of the wine grapes provide a real sweetness. Pairing with the toasted nature that comes from oak. What you will really get in droves is dried fruit and figs. Pair this with a great range of chocolate, caramel and apple notes.
For a food pairing again, I think keeping it simple here is best. An ideal companion for your glass of Pineau are Chocolate and Raspberry Brownies. Acidic fruit and chocolate are also great pairings for Cognac. The richness helps to cut through the boozy liquid and Pineau is no different. A thick and gooey brownie, side by side with sips of the luscious and rich Pineau and things don’t get better than that.
There you have it, an overview of some of our favourite dessert wines, along with a great dessert to have with each one. Now there is no excuse to not make dessert twice as nice as it already was – cheers!
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