We don’t drink enough sweet wines.
There are several reasons for that. We have been taught that “dry” wine is more sophisticated. Truly luxurious sweet wines that taste like nectar stolen from the gods can be ridiculously expensive, so thrift has something to do with it. Moderation comes into play; that extra bottle might seem intemperate. And there’s satiety, that fullness and fatigue that says: “Enough! Let’s just finish the wine already on the table.”
Many bottles of dessert wine have made the trip from my cellar to my dinner table, only to make the return journey unopened. I love a good sticky, but it remains a special-occasion treat.
Valentine’s Day is a worthy special occasion for ending dinner with a sweet wine. The good news: Your dessert tipple doesn’t have to swallow most of your dinner budget. In fact, delicious sweet wines are made around the world, many in unusual styles. Your valentine is special: Why not treat him or her to a unique wine?
We can travel the world from the comfort of our corkscrews in our exploration of dessert wines. The most famous (and pricey) might be the Sauternes and Barsac of Bordeaux; the vendange tardive (late harvest) and Selection de Grains Nobles of Alsace; and Germany’s tongue-twisting (and electrifying) trockenbeerenauslese. These honeyed wines often can stand on their own as dessert.
But southwest France also offers the oddly delicious, slightly fortified red wine of Maury, made from grenache noir and tasting of cocoa, earth and tobacco. And Jurançon gives us intriguing, earthy sweet wines made from the regional grapes petit manseng and gros manseng. These make a nice contrast to the late-harvest petit manseng from Virginia, which tends to be more clean and straightforwardly fruity.
Italy’s most famous dessert wine might be Vin Santo, made from grapes dried on straw mats under the winery rafters for several months before being pressed, then aged in barrels for up to four years. Many people like to dip biscotti in Vin Santo. A dry-aged cheese is another good match; the wine shines by itself as well.
Italy’s wonderful diversity of wine grapes makes the country ripe for interesting dessert wines. From up north in Piemonte comes the slightly sweet, lightly sparkling Brachetto d’Acqui, the red-wine cousin of Moscato. While port is an excellent match for chocolate’s power, Brachetto’s lightness, acidity and palate-cleansing effervescence make it an ideal counterpoint for when the end of the meal is not the end of the evening.
New World winemakers also produce notable sweet wines. Australia works marvels with orange muscat as well as some inexpensive port knock-offs. Canada is famous for its ice wines, made from grapes harvested while frozen on the vine. Argentina, the new darling of the American wine consumer, also has its sweet wines. Look for highly perfumed versions of late-harvest torrontes, Argentina’s increasingly popular white grape. I’ve also recently enjoyed a jaw-droppingly delicious late-harvest malbec, a sweet red wine that cries out for a rich chocolate dessert.
Any of those wines would make a fitting coda to your Valentine’s Day meal. Their common message is that life is sweet, good and full of love.
(This column was published February 10, 2011, in The Washington Post.)