For me, dessert wines remain the wine world’s best kept secret. For many people however, I suspect sweet wine brings back bad memories of Concorde and Blue Nun. (For those born after 1980, no I’m not referring to supersonic aircraft or Mother Theresa telling dirty jokes, but the cheap and sickly sweet wines that attracted, then quickly repelled, so many novice wine drinkers in the 80s).
The reality today is that some of the world’s finest, and correspondingly expensive, wines are the highly specialised, super-concentrated and exquisitely-balanced dessert wines of Sauternes, Tokaji, or even the depths of the Canadian winter.
Fine dessert wines are typically made by one of the following methods:
- Botrytis or ‘noble rot’: a rare condition requiring a series of specific conditions in which the fungus botrytis cinerea attacks healthy and fully ripe grapes. The resulting rot causes the grapes to shrivel and produce the most incredible concentration of sugars and acids. Botrytised wines such as Villard’s El Noble Sauvignon Blanc and Keith Tulloch’s Semillon show that critical balance of sweetness and acidity referred to in last week’s post on the tasting senses.
- Late picking: often labelled ‘Late Harvest’ as in Tabali’s Muscat, and in the right climate rivalling botrytised wines for sheer concentration of flavour, grapes are left on the vine for as long as possible to concentrate the grape juice naturally.
- Drying the grapes: in the same principle as late harvesting for concentration of juices, Italy’s sweet red Recioto wines are produced by picking the ripe grapes and drying until shrivelled before pressing.
- Freezing the grapes: Canada, Germany, Austria, and most recently New Zealand all produce the incredible delicacy of ice wine (or Eiswein), with New Zealand’s Siefried and Canada’s Inniskillen proving stunning examples in recent personal tastings.
Good dessert wines don’t tend to come cheap, and that’s mostly down to the labour-intensive processes outlined above, and the often tiny yields that get produced. Inniskillen as an example claim that each frozen grape contributes just one drop of grape nectar to the finished wine.
But trust me as I let slip our best kept secret, these dessert wines have to be experienced. And if you’re struggling to justify a little luxury in the current doom-and-gloom, let me pass on the advice of a more experienced work colleague on the birth of my first child: “From now on Mike”, he said, “always fly First Class. Because if you don’t your son-in-law will.”