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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Just Desserts

So-called sophisticated wine drinkers often profess to prefer only the driest of wines, dryness being an indication of how much residual sugar remains in a wine after fermentation. But most wine experts will agree that some of the best wines in the world are dessert wines, wines which are meant to be drunk with dessert or as dessert. You’ve probably heard of Sauternes and icewine, but you probably don’t know what makes these sweet wines so special and why they cost as much as they do.

Grapes used for dessert wines are typically harvested later than grapes used for table wine. As grapes mature, malic and tartaric acid are transformed into sugar, so a grape picked in August will taste more tart and less sweet than a grape harvested in October. Of course if you leave a grape on the vine too long, it will either rot or get eaten by hungry bugs or birds searching for a sweet snack. One kind of mold though, known as Botrytis or “Noble Rot” actually is desired. The spores from Botrytis puncture the skin of the grape and suck out a lot of the moisture. As these grapes rot on the vine, their sugar content skyrockets, but their acidity remains intact. A sweet wine without acidity will taste flat and cloyingly sweet, but with a touch of tartness, that same wine will, as the old Twizzler ads went, “make mouths happy!”

The surest sign that botrytis is a component of your dessert wine is that the wine will taste of honey. Typically, botrytis is seen in dessert wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the two grapes used to make Sauternes in that eponymous district of Bordeaux. Botrytis also helps make certain German and Austrian dessert wines sweet, typically, those wines labeled Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese, BA or TBA for short. Most Canadian and German ice wines use grapes that are also botrytis-effected, as do the tokaji wines from Hungary.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee that Botrytis will form. Although scientists have attempted to inoculate grapes with lab-designed strains of the mold, results are inconsistent at best. Waiting for botrytis is a major gamble for grape-growers. If Botrytis doesn’t form, they’re out of luck. It will be too late to make table wine out of those “non-moldy” grapes, and they will have lost their whole crop. If, on the other hand, botrytis does form, the wine they make will be luscious and syrupy and expensive, and they’ll be able to charge a whole lot for what they put in those little half bottles. Although there’s never a guarantee of botrytis, typically, warm wet areas are most afflicted/blessed by “Noble Rot.” Vineyards near water are most susceptible to botrytis, so that is where many dessert wine makers plant their vineyards. They also frequently pray to the weather and wine gods for this curious mold to strike their grapes.

One reason Sauternes are referred to as “liquid gold” is that they’re expensive. The other reason is that they’re frequently so delicious that you’ll find your arms and legs covered in goose bumps after one sip. They’re that good.

Not all dessert wines have to be expensive though. Sauternes from the districts of Barsac and Monbazillac, for instance, are generally much cheaper than true Sauternes, just as icewines that are made from artificially frozen grapes are significantly cheaper than icewines made from grapes frozen on the vine. True icewines are made from grapes harvested between November and January at temperatures well below zero centigrade. When the frozen grapes are crushed, the ice crystals (water content) and syrupy nectar separate, leaving an expensive and unctuous wine to please your palate.

Don’t have a lot of money? Don’t worry. Here’s a list of a few dessert wines that won’t break the bank or leave a sour taste in your mouth. One note though: when pairing wine with dessert, make sure the wine is always sweeter than the dessert. Otherwise, the wine will not taste sweet when you enjoy them side-by-side.

-Meeker Vineyards Tutu Luna, California ~ A blend of Muscat, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer, this is a wine made in the freezer. Meeker artificially freezes these grapes and then separates the ice from the nectar to allow for maximum sweetness. Although this wine does not have any botrytis, the wine boasts flavors of honey-poached apricot, pear and lychee. Can you say yum? $18 for bottle

-Grande Maison, Monbazillac, France ~ This is a Sauternes made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and a splash of Muscatel. The wine features gobs of honey and apricot notes that make it the perfect wine for foie gras, peach cobbler, or as a foil for blue cheese. $20

-Valckenberg Madonna Beerenauslese, Germany ~ Not only is this wine a mouthful to pronounce, but it is also a mouthful of pure deliciousness. Loads of rich ripe apple and pear on the palate, the wine is sweet without being cloying. It is 100% Riesling and the floral notes and petrol notes combine to form an ethereal perfume. This is a wine to drink all by itself, or with fresh strawberries, or even with an apple tart.

Here’s to sweet wines and sweet dreams! Salut!