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Many Faces of Dessert Wines

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 7, 2008 10:12am ET

I like dessert wines, a confession that should come as no shock to longtime readers. I even like to drink sweet wines with savory food, especially cheese. Sweet wines go well with spicy dishes and those that have some fruit or other sweet elements, but when they're good, they don't need food to complete to the picture. They can be dessert.

So I could hardly contain my delight when Desmond Echevarre, the sommelier at Restaurant Charlie at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, poured von Hövel Riesling Eiswein Mosel Oberemmler Hütte 2002 and Maculan Torcolato 2000 side-by-side with the peach tart for dessert there. See my video for my on-the-spot reaction to them, and a surprise third wine.

It occurred to me that these wines represented two ways to get grapes sweet enough to make rich dessert wines by means other than simply letting the grapes ripen and shrivel on the vine. To make eiswein, the grapes are harvested only after freezing temperatures have turned the water in them to ice. By pressing while the ice is still solid, the resulting juice concentrates both sugar and flavor. To make Torcolato, the Maculan winery in northern Italy cuts the entire branch with the bunches on it and twists several of them together to hang them in an attic and let the grape bunches dry into raisins.

Echevarre heard me describing another technique, used by Mount Horrocks winery in Clare Valley, Australia, to make its unique Cordon Cut Riesling. Winemaker Stephanie Toole goes through the vineyard when the grapes ripen and cuts partially through each branch, or cordon, then lets them hang on the vine until the grapes have raisined. The sommelier mentioned that he had the wine in the cellar, and brought out a bottle of the 2006 to try alongside the other wines.

They were all rich and sweet, but they couldn't have been more different. The eiswein had a green tinge to it, and tremendous nerve from its natural acidity, a brightness that let the citrusy apple and gooseberry flavors sail like a javelin. The Torcolato was the opposite, turning toward tawny in color, with spicy, raisiny aromas from the Vespaiola, Tocai and Garganega grapes in it. It reminded me of an older Sauternes, as it goes to that cigar-box-scented caramel range of flavors. The Cordon Cut struck a beautiful balance, showing the richness of a late-harvest Riesling and just enough acidity to make it feel silky, not jazzy like the eiswein.

That's the world of dessert wines. The good ones are so much more than sugary.

Fred Brown
July 7, 2008 8:38pm ET

Your post is timed wonderfully for me - I just bought two bottles of Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume 2005. We are not big sweet wine drinkers, but the quality to price ratio, plus the long drinking window in the WS review, made it look like an excellent opportunity to try something new.

I had planned to open one bottle in the nearer term, and then save the other for some period of time to see how a wine like this ages.

The back label says the wine will work as an aperitif or with dessert. If two couples were to enjoy this over an evening, would you have a recommendation on when to serve it and what to serve it with? Any insights on how long to hold the second bottle in order to get an appreciation of how this type of wine ages?

Thanks in advance, and hope this is not off-topic.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 8, 2008 3:21pm ET
The great thing about most sweet wines is that they are yummy from the moment they are bottled and if they age, they just keep going until they lose their fruit. My experience with Quarts de Chaume is that it reaches a mature stage in about 8-10 years and it can go for 20 years, easy.

I would serve it with an appetizer based on nuts (or just a bowl of marcona almonds and cashews), and a dessert based on peaches, apricots or pears. Just make sure the dessert tastes no sweeter than the wine.
Fred Brown
July 8, 2008 8:23pm ET
Great, thanks!
James J Sherma
hershey, PA —  July 14, 2008 2:57pm ET
Just picked up a Cave de Rasteau Vin de Naturel and am very excited to break it open with my dad. I have a tough time finding people to get excited about sweet-wines with, my wife is a sparkling devotee, and most others are red-biased. One of my first great finds were a bunch of 1985 Lefaurie-Peyreguay bottles and I still have one left in the cellar!!! The 1996 Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume is sitting right next to it. Harvey - keep ringing the dessert-wine bell and I'll keep drinking my Beaumes-de-Venise and St-Jean-de-Minervoise by myself.

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