Samui Wining & Dining
Dessert Wines

Who’s afraid of sweet wine? Nearly everyone, it would appear.


22When was the last time you dined with someone who ordered a glass of Sauternes, or suggested sharing a small bottle of sweet wine with dessert? And why do dinner party hosts feel the need to give an almost apologetic explanation if they dare to bring out a bottle of Port? Sweet wine has fallen so far out of fashion that people have stopped specifying to waiters that they would like a “dry white wine, please,” as they used to do a few years ago. To most people, aside from a handful of sweet wine connoisseurs, it goes without saying that any good wine must be dry. This is unfortunate, because accomplished sweet wines can be among the most distinctive and unusual wines around.

      It’s bizarre that people have never consumed more sugar than they do today, but no one wants to drink sweet wine. Why? Well, it’s true that there are plenty of cloying, treacle-like, headache-causing wines that have given sweet wines a bad image. But there are bad dry wines, too. And no one invalidates dry wine just because of an occasional mistake in ordering. A big part of the problem for sweet wine, I think, is that the casual drinker has become conditioned to the idea that wine should taste a certain way. Few drinkers trust their taste buds enough to admit that they like something that deviates from the internationally standardized format. Paradoxically, some of the more popular everyday wines, that sell far too well, are in fact, sweeter than many drinkers realize. But producers do little to inform the buyer of a wine’s sweetness in the labelling, because they are savvy enough to know there is resistance to sweetness ideologically. (In reality, a certain amount of sweetness can surreptitiously mask a second-rate wine’s shortcomings.)

      Judging by the selection shown at supermarket tastings, it would seem that most people drink dessert style wines in the run-up to Christmas. But in my humble view, summer is as good a time, if not better, to enjoy them. In fact, here in the tropics, the climate is always right for a wine that packs a punch. Sweet and heat work well together. There are few more luxurious pleasures than a simple and intensely fruity dessert with a glass of sweet wine. Or the winning combination of chilled Eiswein (German sweet wine made from naturally frozen grapes) with a sliced ripe mango on coconut gelato.

      To many, Bordeaux's famous Sauternes is the obvious sweet wine choice. And as with other wines, the conventional wisdom used to be that dessert wines improve as they age. But I'm not sure I don't enjoy them just as much young, while they still have all those lush lemon and passion fruit flavours. I'm talking about great dessert wines such as late-harvest Rieslings, Marsalas, Madeiras, Moscatos (and yes, Sauternes too). They may often be made from grapes that were dried on mats and left in the sun or allowed to develop a fungus called botrytis cinerea, which shrivels the grapes, concentrating their sugars. They range from potent dessert wines like Port, which are fortified with neutral spirits, to low-alcohol, fruity wines that are barely off dry. They are wines that often require time and expertise, not to mention expense, to produce. But no one seems to be drinking them, including me. Although, I must admit I never pass up a golden opportunity to drink sumptuous Australian sparkling Shiraz. Shunned by wine snobs, but adored down under, this concentrated berry wine would unquestionably please a wide cross-section of open-minded wine-drinkers around the world, if only they were exposed to it.

      I have a suspicion that some of the lack of popularity for sweeter wines amongst younger drinkers, stems from negative reactions to Port wines. One of the complaints, I often hear about Port, is that it is too rich and too high in alcohol. Port has its place, but it is true that the alcohol levels, around 18 to 20%, can be daunting (the addition of brandy accounts for the extra alcohol). Most dessert wines, on the other hand, rarely exceed 17%, and some of them have as little as 14% alcohol, less than many non-fortified red wines from California, or the Mediterranean lands. And while it may seem a challenge matching Port with any foods other than its traditional English companion, Stilton cheese, you can serve it with a broader range of dishes And particularly with anything fruity or creamy. One of my personal favourite desserts is the seldom made, but nevertheless scrumptious, spiced Port wine jelly served with Chantilly cream.

      The usual guide to picking a dessert wine is that it should be sweeter than your pudding. (Though once you get to a certain level of sweetness, it can be sickly.) I find it more useful to think about whether the dessert is acidic, light or rich. It's also worth checking the alcohol content of the wine. Some wines, including Moscatos and German Rieslings, can be intensely sweet but quite low in alcohol, so again would struggle with a rich, dense dessert. Others, such as fortified wines, can overwhelm lighter desserts like meringues. Another useful tip is that as the colours of the dessert get darker, the wine should get darker.

      For custardy or vanilla flavours, choose a late-harvest Riesling, or a sparkling wine, like demi-sec champagne. A more fruity and spicy dessert will go with Sauternes, or a late-harvest Gewirtztraminer. And for a richer, chocolaty or caramel-like dessert, Botrylis Semillon, like the iconic Noble One, is hard to beat, or if you are willing to break with tradition, red wines, like late-harvest Pinot Noir and Grenache. And I cannot recommend highly enough, the sensational Emeri Sparkling Shiraz from the Yarra Valley’s DeBortoli, to serve as a deliciously alluring partner for anything chocolate.


Peter James


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