Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.
X

Sweet Wines – Sugar Me Up

Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary , Coteaux du Layon in the Loire, icewine, sweet Germans, late harvest from Alsace, well, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to dessert wine. Personally, I’m a huge fan. I find the unique production methods to be fascinating and the sheer quality of the wines can be staggering.

But most of all, I love watching people melt as they sip on a glass after a great dinner. It’s the icing on the cake. So don’t forget that before the Port, you’ll need to serve some dessert wine with a cheesecake, a fruit tart, a selection of cheese, and various other delights.

Sauternes is arguably the king of all sweet wines. It certainly wins the prize for being the most expensive with Chateau d’Yquem ranking amongst the most pricy wines in the world. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a half bottle from an average vintage. And if you come across a bottle from the 1800’s then expect to remortgage your house. But there are plenty around $35 too, so you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it.

Sauternes is part of the Bordeaux region, in south west France. In the fall, autumn mists lift off the river Garonne where it intersects with the Ciron, because of the temperature differences in the water. This mist shrouds the vineyards and creates very humid conditions which are the catalyst for the development of botrytis, or noble rot. It doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t look good either, but this noble rot attacks the berries and punctures small holes in the grapes which cause them to shrivel. As a result the water content of the berry evaporates and you’re left with a high degree of sugar, and ultra-ripe tropical fruit flavors.

But botrytis doesn’t affect all of the grapes at exactly the same time. This means that picking has to be done by hand, with harvesters passing through the vineyard in waves, selecting only the berries with noble rot. At some estates the pickers may go through the vineyard several times, armed with no more than a pair of nail scissors. To put it in perspective, a single grape vine will often produce one 75cl bottle of red or white wine, but in Sauternes the yield is so low that you’d be lucky to extract one glass of the sweet liquid gold from a single vine.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the grapes of choice. The former is highly susceptible to botrytis and the latter helps counter-balance the sweetness with a refreshing acidity and a spectrum of different flavors. The fermentation is halted at approximately 14% alcohol leaving plenty of unfermented sugars in the wine, and then it is transferred to oak barrels for around two years of maturation.

Expect honey to predominate, with notes of pineapple, brown sugar and crème brulee, in a full bodied style. The French love to serve it with foie gras as a starter, but I prefer it with a cheesecake at the end of a meal. When it comes to sweet wines, Sauternes is still my first choice.

But those Hungarian Tokaji’s can be so good too. It’s like picking your favorite child. I take back my comment about Sauternes. Tokaji is gorgeous, replete with an expansive bouquet of marmalade and honey, and a thread of acidity that can enable them to last for decades.

True, Tokaji is not as well-known and perhaps the fact that it is made in Hungary doesn’t exactly help win consumer’s affection. But it is the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, as they say. And the way they make it is entirely unique.

Botrytis is triggered by the same phenomena as in Sauternes, caused by temperature differences in the waters of two rivers that intersect. But here the grapes are different. You have Harslevelu and Furmint, which are hardly household names. A dry white wine is made from Furmint and then the botrytis affected Harslevelu is added. On the label you will see a statement about the number of Puttonyos. The number of Puttonyos ranges between 3-6, and if you buy a 6 then expect it to be sweeter than a 3,4, or 5. Puttonyos is the name of the wicker baskets that the pickers use, filled with botrytis affected grapes.

Let’s face it. If you bring out a bottle of Tokaji, which may cost you around $50, and relay the story of the wicker baskets and the Puttonyos, you’re probably cruising for an “accidental” goodbye kiss on the lips from your flirtatious neighbor.

Moving on. The Loire, including Coteaux du Layon, Quartz de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, made with Chenin Blanc, can display succulent honeyed flavors, in a wine that tends to be a little lighter and more acidic than Sauternes. One of the nice things is the price, which tends to be less than Sauternes and Tokaji, at least for Coteaux du Layon. I’ve found some stunners that are around $30, which is half the price of icewine. Try these with some blue cheese, as the saltiness is offset by the sweetness of the wine.

Germany and Alsace can produce some fabulous sweet wines too. In Alsace look for the words Vendange Tardive (late harvest), or Selection de Grains Noble for the botrytis affected ones. Riesling and Gewurztraminer is king, and I love the incredibly intense aromas of an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Red roses, spice, honey, apricot and a rich oily texture are the hallmarks.

I always look for the wines of Domaine Weinbach, a family-owned producer, established hundreds of years ago. This is traditional winemaking at its best. When I asked Catherine Faller how she handles the winemaking, she replied that she does nothing more than pick the grapes at the perfect moment, press them, and then let nature take its course.

But whilst sweet wines are a rarity in Alsace, Germany specializes in them. Look for the designations Auslese and Beerenauslese on the label if you want something with an undeniable amount of sweetness. These rather complicated terms refer to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest. This is the basis of the German wine laws, where sugar is prized above all else.

The great thing about these wines is the phenomenal balance between sweetness and acidity, delicacy and power, and the unusually low alcohol. Most of the sweet wines from the Mosel have an alcohol degree around 8.0%. This is a good thing, because nobody likes being hung-over.

The Mosel valley in Germany produces many of the benchmark, classic wines. Some of the vineyards are planted on slopes that are so steep that one slip and you could end up in hospital. Fritz Haag, Egon Muller, Selbach-Oster and Dr Loosen all produce stunning wines.

Of course, if you had a guest from the Middle East I might consider serving them Canadian icewine. It’s local and the fact that the grapes have to be picked at -8 Celsius would be as foreign to them as the desert heat is to us.

Canada produces more icewine than any other country, especially in Ontario where there are massive volumes made. Riesling and Vidal are widely used, and producers wait until frigid temperatures freeze the grapes on the wine. This can happen as late as January, which highlights the fact that many sweet wines are made by taking a tremendous risk.

Once the grapes are picked, which is often during the night, they are pressed whilst still frozen and the small amount of sweet juice is inoculated with a powerful yeast to trigger the ferment. A few months later, usually at around 11% alcohol, the ferment is halted and a colossal amount of unfermented residual sugar remains. These are some of the sweetest of all wines, and sometimes can be syrupy, and cloying. Frankly, icewine would be last on my list, especially given the ridiculous prices many producers charge for a ½ bottle. At least you get some fancy packaging thrown in.

There are other sweet wines that you should track down, like the amazing Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from the southern Rhone. Although this is a fortified wine, it is only lightly so, and the gorgeous floral, orange and honeyed aromas will blow everyone away. At around $25 for the half bottle you’ll be the hit of the party.

The list could go on. But that’s enough to get started. So next time you are planning a dinner party, or have romance on the brain, make sure you don’t forget the sweet stuff. There’s a reason why they call it the nectar of the Gods.

WINE, PRODUCER & FOOD PAIRING

Sauternes, Ch. Doisy Vedrines with Blue cheese

Tokaji, Ch Dereszla with Strawberry Cheesecake

Alsace VT, Domaine Weinbach with Crème Brulee

Mosel Auslese, Selbach-Oster with Tropical fruit plate

Canadian icewine, Inniskillin by itself, well chilled

Riesling – a model of purity

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are never aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine and often in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobble stone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Zind Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. They can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty. Where’s a bottle of old Riesling and a plate of fresh seafood when you need it?

SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Dry Riesling – Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan
Paired with prawns, scallops, goat cheese

Off-dry Riesling – Selbach Oster Kabinett
Paired with sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet – Dr Loosen Spatlese
Paired with spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet – Fritz Haag Auslese
Paired with a fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling – Domaine Weinbach, Alsace
Paired with Munster cheese