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.”
Hey, I’m not averse to a Blue Nun every now and then. Must make a distinction between sweet wines and quality wines. There’s loads of sweet teeth out there chomping through Black Towers and adjusted Aussies – and just loving it, time and time again.
Have you ever been to Vinoble in Jerez, the wine fair devoted to everything vinous and sweet?? Get an invite, take a nun; it’s awesome for anyone contemplating a future that involves blogging sweeties and stickies. I went once, stuck with the sweeties and left the nun behind.
So true on the sweeties Kevin. I tried a Liebfraumilch recently and have to say it was very pleasant indeed – in the bracket of medium-sweet and under €10. This was not always the case however, as I’m sure you’ll remember!
Vinoble and Jerez definitely on the travel hit-list, although probably “sans nun” :)
[…] For this reason – and I don’t often make a point of this – it’s worth trading up as far as you can go on the wine front. Delectable, carefully-prepared, slow-cooked food deserves an equally well-crafted, slowly-evolved, classy wine – remember what I said about flying first-class? […]