Although the seminar was titled "International Dessert Wines," senior editor Kim Marcus exhorted the crowd to think differently about the four examples of classic sweet wine styles presented just before lunch. Describing them as "wines of contemplation, sensuality and explosive flavors," he said, these "can be enjoyed far beyond the dessert course." Introducing wineries from Hungary, South Africa, France and Portugal, he said, "They hail from the earliest days of winemaking but are not shackled by tradition. Rather they stand at the pinnacle of innovation."
The newest on the scene is Royal Tokaji, which was founded in 1990, but follows winemaking traditions dating to the 17th century. As the crowd enjoyed its luscious Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos Betsek 2008 (95 points, $135/500ml), evocative of oranges and apricots, managing director Charlie Mount quipped that he was tempted to just sit there for five minutes and let the wine do the talking. "Our mission was to revive the great wines of Tokaji ... once considered among the greatest wines in the world," he said. (Tokaji was declared the "wine of kings, king of wines" by Louis XIV.) "Then Communism came along, which was not good for quality."
Northeastern Hungary's Tokaji region was the first in the world to classify its vineyards, in 1730, and Betsek is considered a first-growth. Under the right conditions, Furmint, one of Tokaji's main varieties, is susceptible to noble rot, or botrytis, a fungus that concentrates grape sugars, flavors and acidity. Each grape is hand-selected; during harvest, a picker might bring in an average of 0.78 kilos per hour—"slightly more than the weight of an iPad," Mount quipped—as the "aszú" berries have lost about 80 percent of their weight. They are macerated in a dry base wine to create a luscious wine with "lip-smacking acidity." Only 394 cases were made of the 2008 Betsek; the next vintage is 2013.
Next to speak was Bruno Prats, former owner of Bordeaux's Château Cos-d'Estournel and now partner in Portugal's Prats and Symington. "When you think of historic wine, you probably think of old Europe. I'm here to talk about a historic wine from South Africa," said Prats, a partner in Klein Constantia since 2012. The Constantia estate was created in 1685, and its Vin de Constance—a favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte—was renowned in the 18th and 19th centuries. "How is a wine with such a glorious past less well known today?" he asked. After phylloxera struck the region in the late 1800s, the wine disappeared—reborn only in the 1980s. Now it's reclaiming its former reputation, with the 2009 vintage earning a spot in Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of 2015 (and giving the winery a second appearance on stage that same day).
While Sauternes and Tokaji are botrytized and Port is fortified, Vin de Constance is instead made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes left on the vine for three months to shrivel, then picked berry by berry. The juice and skins are fermented together before pressing; "It's a white wine made as a red wine," Prats said. Aged in oak for four years, the Klein Constantia Vin de Constance Constantia 2004 (94 points, $50/500ml) is rich in mango and other tropical fruits, with racy acidity for balance.
Since 2004, Pierre Lurton has overseen France's Château d'Yquem, the storied Sauternes estate whose wines were enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson and Russian tsars alike. In this part of Bordeaux, fog during the September mornings encourages botrytis to develop, while afternoon sun dries the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. What makes Yquem exceptional, said Lurton, is a combination of "the terroir and the people who work there." Experience is necessary because making Sauternes is "about taking risk, playing with risk;" it's a wine that cannot be made in every vintage. The voluptuous 2005 vintage (97 points, $790) showed apricot, figs, dried fruit and floral notes, with a lengthy finish. Though from a dry year, the wine shows the freshness and elegance that Lurton considers Yquem's hallmarks.
The seminar concluded with the first-ever showing of Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional 2001 (not yet rated). "We don't make much of it, and we don't make it often," said managing director Christian Seely; the only time he has served to Nacional to such a large group was at Wine Spectator's 35th anniversary.
As he showed dramatic images of the Douro's steep terraced vineyards, Seely explained that Nacional comes from a four-acre parcel on the 350-acre estate, where the vines are not grafted onto American rootstock as most European vines are to protect against phylloxera. The grapes are crushed by foot-trodding in lagares. "Nacional is always strikingly different in personality" from the rest of the quinta, Seely said, but it is not always better, such as in 2007. In other years, Nacional "marches to its own drum" and produces a great wine even though the vintage isn't declared for Port, such as 2001, in which it was extremely tannic and concentrated.
Rather than releasing the 2001 immediately after the classic 2000 Nacional, he decided to hold it in bottle until it was approachable—only now, after 15 years. "A great Nacional always has this amazing youth to it," Seely said. This one "tastes as though we made it yesterday. ... This is a wine that will be more or less immortal, I think."
So what do the panelists pair with these not-just-for-dessert wines? Mount enjoys Tokaji with foie gras or a Cuban cigar; Prats likes Vin de Constance as an aperitif. Lurton recommends Sauternes with poulet de Bresse with mushrooms, crêpes suzettes or cheese. Seely made the case that dessert always needs a dessert wine to go with it, but even more important than pairing is sharing.
"Forget dating apps," he concluded. If you want to be popular, fill your cellar with Vintage Port, tell your friends you open it often and "you'll never be alone." The same could be said for any of the wines poured.