Dessert and Fortified Wines
By Peter Tryba
Come autumn, winemakers in the Northern Hemisphere make big harvest decisions-one of which is whether to make dessert wine.
Dessert wine can be created using several methods. The most obvious strategy is harvesting grapes later than normal, which allows them to become overripe and sweeter. A related procedure is the intervention of "noble rot," or Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that perforates the grape skins, evaporating water and concentrating sugars in the process.
Many dessert wines fall into the category of fortified wines. All fortified wines have alcohol added to them at some point during the winemaking process. A vintner who adds alcohol during fermentation will end up with a sweeter wine (like port) because the additional alcohol stops the yeast from converting the grapes' natural sugars into alcohol.
If alcohol is added after fermentation,
the result is a dry wine. Whatever the final style, fortification gives the wine higher alcohol content (typically 16 to 20 percent).
Sometimes grapes are left on the vine until the temperature drops below freezing. This causes the water inside the grape to turn to ice, which is left behind once the grapes are crushed.
The resulting potently sweet yet crisp dessert wine is aptly named ice wine (Eiswein in its homeland of Germany). Making ice wine is risky, and the success rate is low. Birds, bugs, rain, and hail are just some of the factors that can ruin the grapes on the vine.
Spain's most famous dessert wine is sherry, a fortified white. Try pouring a bit of Pedro Ximénez (also known as PX) over vanilla ice cream.
The Portuguese may not have known three centuries ago that they were to be world renowned for creating the most famous fortified wine, but they aren't complaining now! Back then, port was simply red Portuguese wine that was fortified with brandy to survive the sea voyage to England.
Ruby port, typically about $10 a bottle, is made from blended young wines ranging in age from one to three years. It goes well with cherry pies, cobblers, and tarts. Aged tawny ports mature in wooden casks for years-sometimes more than 40-before bottling. Serve these ports with caramel desserts.
Madeira, a fortified white wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira, tastes of caramel. It would be a good choice for Thanksgiving, as it complements pumpkin pie.
Drying grapes after harvest and before crush-allowing them to dessicate without decay-became an Italian art form after its humble beginnings in ancient Carthage. Recioto is a sweet red made with dried grapes. Pair it with chocolate or nut desserts. Dip almond biscotti into Vin Santo, made in central Italy.
Hungary is home to Tokaji (pronounced toe-kai), a great dessert wine. Tokaji's fame dates back to 1703 when the prince of Transylvania gave it as a gift to France's King Louis XIV, who declared it "wine of kings, king of wines." Several major setbacks-from the repartitioning of the country's borders in the early eighteenth century to the phylloxera (grape louse) epidemic, the loss of land to Czechoslovakia, and then Communist rule-almost caused the wines to vanish. They've experienced a resurgence in the past two decades. Serve Tokaji with crème brûlée.
France is home to one of the most famous dessert wine regions and singular dessert wines of all time: Sauternes and Château d'Yquem (pronounced dee-kem), respectively. These white wines from France's Bordeaux region are made from late-harvest grapes infected with noble rot. Pair them with fruit desserts, especially those made with peaches, apricots, apples, and pears. While $300 to $400 for a bottle of Château d'Yquem is not unusual, your retailer can help you select a more affordable Sauternes.
The United States does the entire range of dessert wines well, including late-harvest, ice wine, and port- and sherry-style wines. Try a late-harvest Zinfandel from California with chocolate and almost any cheese.