The Boston Phoenix
May 4 - 11, 2000


| by restaurant | by cuisine | by location | hot links | food home |
| dining out archive | on the cheap archive | noshing & sipping archive | uncorked archive |

Just desserts

The sweet truth about sweet wines

by Thor Iverson

Grandma's sherry. Cold Duck. Communion wine. Manischewitz. White zinfandel. For most people, their first taste of wine is one of these sticky concoctions. So it's no surprise that sweet wine has a bad reputation -- because aside from the occasional decent white zin, most of these wines really suck.

But historically, many of the world's most sought-after wines were sweet. Tokaji, Sauternes, Port, and Madeira were prized at the tables of the royal and the rich. Some of today's greatest wines, such as Montrachet (the great white Burgundy) and Savennières (chenin blanc from the Loire Valley), used to be sweet. And sweet wines remain an essential part of winemaking and dining traditions all over the world. Everywhere but America, that is. Too many domestic wine lovers regard sugar as an aberration -- something only grandmothers and the oenologically uneducated could like.

The American shunning of sugar is certainly due to the bad reputation of the cheap plonk iterated above. It's also a result of the notion that there are "right" and "wrong" wines to drink -- or, more accurately, right and wrong wines to be seen drinking. Worse yet is the belief that only dry wine can go with food. Though some progress has been made (the growing acceptance of off-dry German whites with mildly spicy Asian cuisine), sweet wines are usually forced to accompany the dessert course, a pairing that demeans both the food and the wine. Sugar in food cancels out sugar in wine, and vice-versa -- which sorta defeats the purpose of both dessert and dessert wine.

The plain truth is that many sweet wines go just wonderfully with everyday food. Sweet wines from the Loire Valley, such as Coteaux du Layon or Vouvray moelleux, are lovely with all manner of fish dishes. Ruby port is delicious with steaks or burgers on the grill. And almost all sweet wines are perfect foils for sharp cheeses such as Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, or Roquefort.

So what separates a spectacular Sauternes from a mediocre Manischewitz? Balance and complexity. One thing all great dessert wines have in common is a bright acidity to counterbalance the sweetness. A low-acid sweet wine is a little like syrup: delicious at first sip, but monotonous and dull in quantity. As for complexity, a sweet wine should be a lot more than grapey sugar water. It should change and develop and grow just like dry wine, and the sugar should enhance (not bury) those qualities.

There are a lot of different styles of dessert wine, many more than we could sensibly list here. And so I'm going to focus on one particular genre: sweet wines made from dried or partially dried grapes. (I'll leave other styles for future columns.)

If left alone by growers and Mother Nature, grapes can get extremely ripe and sweet on the vine. Grapes picked at this point yield "late harvest" wines, which are high in alcohol and quite sweet (although they can also be vinified dry with special yeasts).

But winemakers, in their infinite ingenuity, have figured out ways to accelerate and imitate the process. An effect similar to late harvesting can be accomplished by removing water from the grape. When it happens on the vine, it's called passerillage. Because of the vagaries of late-season weather, this is a risky way to make sweet wine, but many spectacular dessert wines -- like Vouvray moelleux -- are made this way.

More common is letting picked grapes dry on straw mats, on wires, or in a special facility -- all techniques that are particularly widespread in Italy. Popular sweet wines made in this fashion include vin santo and any wine whose name includes the word "recioto," such as recioto di Soave and recioto della Valpolicella.

Another way grapes can be dried -- the squeamish should skip this paragraph -- is via a special mold called Botrytis cinerea, or "noble rot," which sometimes feeds on the sweet nectar of late-season grapes. Botrytis-affected grapes are a shriveled, grayish, nasty-looking mess. But the wine made from such grapes is stunningly concentrated and rich. The greatest (and often most expensive) dessert wines from most countries -- Sauternes, Barsac, and Monbazillac from the Bordeaux region of France; Alsatian sélection des grains nobles; German trockenbeerenauslese; and others -- are born from these fungal beginnings.

Ultimately, though, there's no substitute for tasting these succulent sweet things yourself. And so, here are a few worth tracking down:

Recioto della Valpolicella. These wines have a dense, tannic, almost prune-like flavor, and can range from off-dry to medium-sweet. Look for bottles from Mazzi, Allegrini, Dal Forno, and Quintarelli, though the latter two will be quite expensive.

Recioto di Soave. Takes the sometimes innocuous Soave flavors and bats them out of the park. The richness of this light-colored sweet white is balanced by a certain delicacy. Look for bottles from producers Anselmi, Pieropan, and Ca'Rugate.

Sauternes/Barsac. Chateau d'Yquem is the superstar among Sauternes producers (and very expensive), but you can easily track down bottles from other top producers, like Rieussec or Filhot. Among Barsac producers, seek out Climens and Doisy-Vedrines. Bargain hunters should pick freely from the wines of such regions as Monbazillac and Ste-Croix-du-Mont. All these deep golden wines share an unctuous richness akin to sweet butter, and many taste strongly of oak.

Other. Many of the best dried-grape wines carry proprietary names. One of the most spectacular is the Maculan Torcolato, a decadent and almost gelatinous explosion of fruit that makes you want to drink more and more and more (I say this from experience). The Maculan Acininobili is a richer, botrytized version of the same wine, and much more expensive.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

The Uncorked archive