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Is your wine your pudding?

Last updated on: January 05, 2015 13:19 IST

How about topping your meal with a sweet wine? Here is a beginner's guide to dessert wines.

Dessert wines are among the least understood and, hence, least consumed wines in the world.

These are wines with a higher degree of sweetness than normal, are drunk either with or instead of dessert and include a wide variety of wine types and production methods -- from the delicately fizzy Moscato to wines with a range of sweetness and rich vintage ports. Dessert wines can be classified into two broad categories -- richly sweet and fortified.

Richly sweet

These are what most people understand to be dessert wines, with their sweetness balanced by high acidity that allows some of the wines to age well for 50-plus years.

There are four principal methods to produce such wines:

Noble rot:

Certain climates allow selected grapes to get afflicted by the fungus Botrytis Cinerea which shrivels up the berries.

This, in turn, yields a very small quantity of very sweet juice.

The wines so produced can be of incredibly high quality. The best-known wines in this category include:

Sauternes:

Produced from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Bordeaux, France, the most famous Sauternes are Château d'Yquem, whose release price (the price at which the wine is first released into the market) is between $500 and $750 per bottle.

Tokaji Aszu:

Produced from the Furmint and Harslevelu grapes in the Tokay regions of Hungary and Slovenia, its sweetness rating is called 'puttonyos', with six puttonyos being the maximum.

Sweet Rieslings:

The least sweet is termed 'Auslese', then comes Beerenauslese (which is sweeter), and finally Trockenbeerenauslese, which is the sweetest in the series.

Late harvest:

When the grapes are allowed to remain on the vine and become over-ripe, this again concentrates the juice.

The resulting wines will be sweeter but with high alcohol content.

Late harvest wines can be produced in either cold climates (with the grapes being harvested going into winter) or warm climates (like in India, where the grapes are harvested going into summer).

The impact is the same. In Germany this produces Spätlese Rieslings.

Ice wine:

This is the most extreme form of late harvest wines, where the grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine, and have to be harvested and pressed in the same state -- generally in the middle of the night!

It is known as Eiswein in Europe, with significant production in Austria and Germany.

The most famous ice wine in the world is from the Inniskillin Winery (Canada); that country produces the bulk of ice wines.

Straw wines:

A peculiar term, it is given to wines traditionally laid out on beds of straw to 'raisinate' before being processed into wine.

This again concentrates the juice and helps to produce some amazing wines. Wines under this category include:

Vin Santo:

Produced in the Tuscany area of Italy from white wine grapes like Malvasia.

Recioto de Soave:

Produced in the Veneto area of north-east Italy, mainly from the Garganega grape.

Recioto de Valpolicella:

Also produced in the Veneto, but from the red wine grapes Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara.

It is worth remembering that the Amarone wines start off with the same raisinated grapes but fermentation is allowed to be completed (so Amarone is not sweet), whereas for a Recioto the fermentation is stopped before completion.

Fortified and sweet

These are wines where the taste and character of the wine has been changed, either by adding grape brandy (as with Ports) or modifying the production process (as with the Solera system used for Sherry), resulting in wines that are generally strong and often quite sweet.

Port:

Made from local grapes along the Douro River in northern Portugal, Port was promoted by British merchants in the 18th century when access to French wine became restricted during the 'Hundred Years War' (series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453). Fermentation is stopped by adding grape brandy and further processing the wine (for example, by maturing in woodden casks or vats).

Some ports like Vintage Port and Tawny Port can be 20-50 years old and still be drinking well.

Sherry:

Made from mainly the Palomino grape in the Andalucia area of south-west Spain, Sherry is fortified after completing fermentation, and Sherries of different ages are blended using the Solera system to produce a consistent style.

Most Sherries are dry, with only Pale Cream, Cream, and Dolce Sherries being sweet enough to be considered true 'dessert' wines.

Madiera:

Produced on the island of Madeira, off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is oxidised and heated in a way that would ruin any other wine.

The Bual and Malmsey types of Madeira are both sweet and strong.

Dessert wines and food

Dessert wines can either be quaffed on their own or used to wash down cakes, dry desserts or cheeses.

While there are few pairing requirements for dessert wines, one rule is to ensure that the wine is sweeter than the dessert.

Famous food pairings with dessert wines include:

Sauternes with Foie Gras:

The rich creamy taste of goose liver pate is offset perfectly by a sweet white dessert wine -- a timeless match.

Madeira with dark chocolate desserts: Although chocolate is very difficult to pair with any wine, this combination works.

Vintage Port and Stilton cheese: Another legendary pairing, where the dry salty flavour of a Stilton is perfectly offset by Vintage Port.

What's available in India

In India, many wineries produce late harvest wines from Chenin Blanc. Among them are Big Banyan, Reveilo, Sula, Vallonne, and York.

The Sula Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Rs 370 for 375 ml) is widely available and would probably be a good one to start with.

Lead image used for representational purposes only.

Photograph: Jing/Creative Commons

Alok Chandra
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