Dessert wine is frequently everything that drives me crazy about the wine business, since it’s sweet, rich, luscious and often pricey. But dessert wine almost always gets the benefit of my doubt, because it’s that much fun to drink. Pour a glass after a dinner, sniff it, swirl it around in the glass, and sip it. It caps off the evening without recourse to over-chocolated desserts, the current chef-fusion-fruit concoction or whatever form of cheesecake is making the rounds.
Dessert wines come in a variety of flavors and styles (and this doesn’t include port and sherry, which are another subject entirely). Some are made with fruit other than grapes; some are sparkling; and some use grapes that have frozen or are left to rot on the vines, a process called botrytis. What each has in common, regardless of style, is sweetness – not sugary soft drink sweet, but a fuller, more approachable sweetness. It’s a flavor, and not the wine’s reason for being.
Don’t be discouraged by these prices, which are high. A dessert wine serving is half or less than that of a dinner wine, and one or two glasses is more than sufficient. Serve slightly chilled:
• Jackson-Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Vidal Icewine 2005 ($20 for a 187-ml bottle). Icewine is made by letting the grapes freeze on the vine, which concentrates the sugar. This is a Canadian wine, and Canada produces some of the world’s best. The vidal is more sweet than fruity, though there are some tropical flavors underneath the sweetness.
• Hardys Semillon Botrytis 2003 ($15 for a 375-ml bottle). This Australian is a good introduction to dessert wine, made in the style of French sauternes for a quarter of the price. It’s not as elegant, but it does have some of the traditional apricot and caramel flavors.
• Le Vol des Anges 2006 ($30 for a 187-ml bottle). The legendary Randall Graham says this may be the best wine he has ever made. It isn’t, but that’s no reason not to try it. It’s made in the style of a sauterne, but with roussanne grapes. It’s not as rich as the icewine, and it has a very intriguing herb-like flavor in the middle of the sweetness.