Sweet Sticky Things…Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World Tasting

In the world of dessert wines (a.k.a. “stickies”) Ports from Portugal, and Sauternes from Bordeaux rule. When I saw that my favorite wine shop, K&L Wine Merchants, was doing a tasting called “Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World“, I was eager to see what other regions of the world have to offer. Not only was the wine geek in me curious, it’s also been my experience that lesser known wine regions often offer outstanding Quality-Price Ratio (“QPR”) wines.

The tasting was not only geographically diverse (Austria, Hungary, Canada, Greece, and lesser known regions of France – Loire, Languedoc, and Alsace), it also offered a variety of both late harvest, and fortified stickies made from both white and red grapes. There was also a variety of treats to pair with the wines including various cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery, and chocolates from The Chocolate Garage.

Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World - The Lineup

My tasting notes follow:

2009 Weiss Grüner Veltliner Fahrenheit 19 Ice Wine - Austria, Burgenland

Light yellow with gold tinged color with pear, brown sugar, and faint floral aromas. On the palate approaching medium bodied with very good acidity, and nectarine, spice flavors. Medium finish. (88 pts).

2008 Union of Winemaking Cooperatives of Samos Muscat Samos Vin Doux, Vin de liqueur - Greece, Aegean, Samos

This is a fortified vin doux Muscat.  Yellow gold color with peach liqueur, apricot, and spice aromas. On the palate medium light bodied with honeyed citrus, spiced apricot jam flavors. Medium-long finish. (88 pts).

2008 Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon-Beaulieu Les Rouannieres - France, Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur, Coteaux du Layon-Beaulieu

Minimally  botrytised Chenin Blanc.  Light yellow gold color with muted candied apple,and almond aromas. On the palate medium bodied with tropical, apple, and pear flavors with a hint of nutty savoriness. Long finish (90 pts).

2007 Beck-Hartweg Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles - France, Alsace, Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace AOC

Sélection de Grains Nobles (“SGN”) are  botrytised wines from Alsace, France.  Light yellow color with nutty, peach, mineral aromas. On the palate medium bodied, well balanced with very good acidity and peach, spice, and slight mineral flavors. Long finish. (91 pts).

2006 Royal Tokaji Wine Co. Tokaji 5 Puttonyos - Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji

Botrytised Furmint Blend.  Golden honey color with aromas of apricot, honey, alcohol. On the palate viscous, with apricot, honey and faint mineral notes. Long finish. (91 pts).

2001 Tokaj Hétszőlő Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos - Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji

Botrytised Furmint Blend.  Golden yellow color with vivid aromas of apricot and orange peel. On the palate viscous, balanced with harmonious streak of acidity, and intense apricot and orange flavors with a hint of minerality. Long finish. (94 pts).

2008 Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Icewine - Canada, Ontario, Niagara Peninsula, Short Hills Bench VQA

Pretty rosy dark pink color with sweet red fruit aromas. Palate follows with vibrant cherry and raspberry flavors; medium bodied with light tannins and medium-long finish (89 pts).

2007 Domaine Mas de Lavail Maury Expression - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Maury

This is a Vins doux naturels fortified wine from the south of France made from Grenache grapes ; very dark garnet almost inky color with aromas of cherry liquer, sweet tobacco,spice and floral notes. On the palate red fruit, and spice with good acidity and a touch of fine grained tannins. Medium long finish.  (89 pts).

After taking care of business tasting this group of outstanding dessert wines, it was time to enjoy a few different food pairings.  Hands down my favorite pairing was the Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Ice Wine and Pralus Madagascar 75% Dark Chocolate. It was simply a sublime pairing!  I also enjoyed the classic Roquefort cheese and Tokaji pairing, though I must confess I’ve never had cheese for my dessert course.

I always look forward to furthering my wine education, and this was a very good opportunity.  I tasted Tokaji for the first time, which I’ve been eager to do, and I now have a better understanding of which types of dessert wines to pair with which types of desserts,  and which might be better on a stand-alone basis for dessert.  All in all, a sweet start to the weekend!

Dessert Wine Primer – Part 2; Late Harvest Dessert Wines

Late harvest is a term applied to wines that are made from grapes left on the vine longer than usual.  Allowing the grapes to “hang” longer (to the point where the grapes may be similar to raisins) increases their sugar levels, making a sweeter wine.  How long the grapes are left on the vine determines the type of late harvest wine produced.  To my mind, there are three types of late harvest wines; 1) Late Harvest, 2) Noble Rot, and 3) Ice Wines.

Producing any type of late harvest wine involves more risk (i.e. animals eating the sweet grapes, adverse weather, etc.) and expense, because picking the grapes later than usual is a more labor-intensive process.  Thus sweet wines, like their fortified cousins, tend to be made in smaller quantities and are more expensive.

Late Harvest

The most basic type of late harvest wines are made from grapes picked after the regular harvest when their sugar content, referred to as brix is very high.   Once the sweet juice is rendered, as with all wines the fermentation process is started, and yeast does its thing converting the sugars to alcohol.  However once the alcohol level reaches 16% , the yeast can no longer survive, and whatever natural sugar is left remains resulting in a sweet dessert wine.  The most popular grape types for making late harvest wines are Riesling and Gewürztraminer and believe it or not, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc.

Noble Rot

If the grapes are left on the vine long enough, they become infected with the benevolent fungus Botrytis cinerea, roughly translated as “noble rot”.  The noble rot fungus eats its way below the skin, attacking the fruit inside, turning it into horrible looking, moldy clusters, but also concentrating the sugars, acids, and flavors by dehydrating the grapes.  The noble rotted grapes are picked and pressed.  The mold isn’t washed off, or otherwise removed.  Since molded grapes are pressed one might ask, “Can you taste the botrytis in the wine?”  An experienced taster may be able to.  Besides, the mold contributes both flavor (reputed to be a bit like sweet corn), and complexity to the wine.

For the botrytis fungus to take hold of healthy, ripe grapes a singular set of climatic conditions, with just the right amount of humidity, and warmth must be present.

The most famous botrytised dessert wines are Sauternes, and Tokaji.

Sauternesthese wines hail from Bordeaux, France and are one of the most famous dessert wines in the world.  The most legendary of these wines is produced by Château d’Yquem (a 200 year old bottle recently sold $117k!).  Sauternes are made from SémillonSauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes.   The region is located near a river, thus providing the requisite humidity to insure the onset of noble rot frequently.  Nevertheless, there can be production can be a hit-or-miss proposition from vintage to vintage.  For that reason vintage matters with Sauternes more than other types of wines.

Château d'Yquem - 1973. With age the wine gets darker and darker...

The balance of sweetness, and acidity characterizes Sauternes.  Typical flavors include apricots, honey, and peaches.   Sauternes are some of longest-lived wines because the residual sugar and acids in the wine act as natural preservatives.  The wines typically start out with a golden, yellow color that becomes progressively darker as it ages.  Sauternes should be served chilled between 50-55°F.  Because of their acidity, they can be served with a variety of food.  A classic pairings for Sauternes are foie gras, and blue-veined cheeses because it provides a counter balance to the richness and saltiness of these foods.

I’ve not tried Sauternes yet, but it’s definitely on my Wines To-Do list!

Tokaji (for pronunciation click here) has been a legendary wine for 400 years.  In fact, Tokaji wine became the world’s first appellation control region in 1730.   It was established several decades before Port wine, and over 120 years before the classification of Bordeaux, which includes the aforementioned legendary Château d’Yquem Sauternes.  Since all the wine from the region, dry and sweet, are referred to as Tokaji, it should be noted that I’m focused on Tokaji Aszú, which are made from noble rotted grapes.

Tokaji Aszú is made from a blend of FurmintHárslevelű, and Yellow Muscat.  While both Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú are made from noble rotted grapes, the process is a little different in Tokaji.  Rather than pressing the juice from the grapes, as in Sauternes, shriveled aszú grapes are picked one by one from botrytis affected bunches. The grapes are then brought to the winery where they are lightly crushed into a paste. Concurrent with that process, non-botrytised grapes are picked separately and made into a base wine.  The aszú paste is added in various proportions to the base wine.  The proportion of aszú added is measured in puttonyos (see below).  The ratio of puttonyos to the base wine determines how sweet the wine will be.  The paste will then steep in the based wine for as little as 8 hours, or as many as 2, or 3 days.  At this point the sweetened wine is drawn off the aszú paste and allowed to ferment again in large wooden casks or barrels.  The second fermentation can take months, or even years because of both the high sugar content of the wine, and the cold temperature in cellars dug centuries ago.   By law Tokaji Aszú must be aged at least 2 years in oak barrels and one year in the bottle before it can be sold.

Additionally, a little headspace may be left in the barrel, and yeast and bacteria present in the cold, damp, dark tunnels feed on the oxygen in the wine, much as flor does in certain types of Sherry.  This process also adds to the unique character of Tokaji Aszú.

Tokaji wine cellars

The sweetness level of Tokaji is measured in Puttonyos as follows (1):

  • 3 Puttonyos – Sweet: 6-9% residual sugar
  • 4 Puttonyos – Quite sweet: 9-12% residual sugar
  • 5 Puttonyos – Very pronounced sweetness: 12-15% residual sugar
  • 6 Puttonyos – Dramatically sweet: 15-18% residual sugar
  • Tokay Aszú Eszencia – Outrageously sweet: more than 18% residual sugar
  • Tokay Eszencia – Off the charts: 40-70% residual sugar

Tokaji Aszú should be served chilled between 50-55°F.  Like Sauternes, it can be paired with foie gras, and blue-veined cheeses. They also pair well with custard style desserts such as creme brulee, as well as combined fruit and caramel desserts.

Other “Old World” rivals to Sauternes, and Tokaji are  Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese wines from Germany and Austria.

Ice Wines

Grapes for ice wine, still frozen on the vine

In cold climates, grapes can be left on the vine until the temperature falls below 19º.  At that temperature, much of the water freezes out of the grapes, leaving the sugar and other solids behind.  The grapes are then picked one by one, and then gently pressed to yield tiny amounts of super sweet juice concentrated in flavors, acidity and sugars.  The most famous ice wines are German Eiswein and Canadian ice wine, but ice wines are also made in the United States, Australia, France and other countries.  Sometimes, winemakers use a less effective short-cut, and simply freeze grapes in huge industrial freezers.

Ice wines are generally made with Vidal and Riesling grapes.  But they may be made from other grape varietals, such as Gruner Vetliner, Cab Franc, or Chardonnay grapes.

One of my favorite dessert and late harvest dessert wine pairing so far has been Tres Leches Cake with a late harvest German Riesling.

(1) K. MacNeil The Wine Bible

How To Choose Dessert Wines To Pair With Treats

Now that you’ve been introduced to Fortified stickies (Part 1 ), and Late Harvest stickies (Part 2) via my Dessert Wine Primer series, here’s a short video from Howcast on how pair dessert wines.  Go forth and indulge thy self!

If you have a favorite dessert wine, or a favorite dessert and dessert wine pairing, leave a comment and let me know!

Ice Ice Baby!

The other night I came home from work late. I had a light meal, but wanted something sweet after dinner.  It was a warm evening  so ice cream came to mind, but I had ice cream the night before and wanted to avoid the fat.  I decided to have a little ice wine -  2008 Alois Kracher Cuvée Eiswein from Austria.

Because it was chilled, it was refreshing.  It definitely satisfied my sweet tooth.  What I like about ice wines is that even though they are sweet, they tend not to be cloyingly sweet, as other dessert wines such as late harvest, or ports can be.  That’s because they have more acidity than other dessert wines.  And acidity tends to refresh the palate rather than cling to it.

To make ice wine, like late harvest wines, the grapes are left on the vine to ripen and raisin quite a while after the grapes are picked for the non-dessert wines.  Then the winemaker waits for a frost to come and cover the grapes.  For this reason ice wine is primarily made in limited geographies – places that frost over between November, and January (Germany, where ice wine has been made since the 1700s, and Canada make the most ice wine).

The grapes are pressed frozen. The freezing point of grapes is lower than that of pure water, because the sugar in them lowers the freezing point. Most of the water in the grape doesn’t come out in the pressing, because it’s ice crystals, so the yield of liquid is only 10 to 20 percent of what you would get from grapes that weren’t frozen, but, the liquid that does come out is very concentrated in flavors, acidity and sugars.  As you can imagine, it takes a lot more  grapes to get the juice needed to make the wine.  between the limited geography, and the larger amount of grapes required to make the wine, the ice wine is expensive to make.

Since pure grape nectar is used to make the wines, the wines are very sweet, and pour like syrup. Ice wines are generally made with Vidal and Riesling grapes.  But they may be made from other grape varietals, as was the case with the ice wine I had, which was made from Gruner Vetliner, and Chardonnay grapes.

I tend to like ice wines on their own rather than pairing with desserts because of the sweetness of the wines.  But if you want to pair with a dessert, remember you generally want the wine to be sweeter than the dessert. With that in mind, I suggest using ice wine as an accompaniment to fresh summer berries with cream, chocolate biscuits, a pear tart, raspberry mousse, or a meringue.  Depending on the grape varietal, it might even be poured over ice cream. And don’t forget about pairing ice wine with cheese if you like a cheese plate after dinner.  Because of the natural acidity of ice wines, they can work with a variety of cheeses, including blue cheese.

Ice wine should ideally be served chilled in a chilled regular wine glass – about 2 ounces a serving. Take a walk on the wild side and try some!