Dessert Wines

Theme

Sweets for the sweet!  This tasting caters both to the wine lover and the sweet tooth, and is a real crowd-pleaser.  Many of the main wine regions of the world are known for at least one “dessert wine” that is sweeter and works perfectly as an after-dinner treat or as an accompaniment to your dessert course.  You’ll go through all the most famous dessert wines in the world, learning a ton while enjoying some serious and sweet wine!

Angle

This is a “getting to know you” style tasting where you want your guests to focus on one wine at a time.  It’s done best as a horizontal tasting where each guest gets a class and you pour a taste of each wine to everyone in the room and discuss it before moving on.  We’d go from lightest to richest, roughly according to the order we’ve laid out below.

Sample Lineup

  1. Saracco, Moscato d’Asti ($15)
  2. Selbach, Eiswein, Germany, 375ml ($55)
  3. Royal Tokaji, Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, 500ml ($35)
  4. Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sauternes, 375 ml ($140)
    or
    Chateau de Farques 2005, Sauternes, 375 ml ($60)
  5. Rocca di Montegrossi 2001, Vin Santo, Tuscany, 375ml ($80)
  6. Inniskillin, Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, Canada, ($85)
  7. Allegrini, Recioto della Valpolicella “Giovanni Allegrini,” 500ml ($70)
  8. Graham’s Vintage Port 2007 ($80)
  9. Osborne, Pedro Ximenez 1837, Sherry ($18)

The Wines

This tasting presents a wide range of dessert wines from around the world.  What’s important here is to find examples of the varietals, not necessarily the specific wines we recommend above.  The fun of this tasting is to compare just how different the wines are from one another stylistically, given that they’re all dessert wines with relatively high levels of residual sugar that will probably all be popular with your guests who happen to have a sweet tooth.  We included nine wines above – five white and four red – though you certainly don’t need that many.

Start out with a range of white dessert wines.  Kick your party off with a Moscato from Italy, which is slightly sparkling and really refreshing – a perfect palate-cleanser with notes of peach and pear.  From there, move to a Riesling Eiswein (German for “ice wine”) if you can find it, made from Riesling grapes left on the vine in Germany until they are literally harvested frozen, in the snow.  Eiswein can be very expensive; the Selbach we recommend represents excellent value, relatively speaking, with great apple notes.  Then move to the sensational Sauternes.  You can pay as little as $15 or as much as $125+ for a half-bottle of Sauternes, depending on whether you want a value-priced offering or the celebrated “First-Growth” Chateau d’Yquem.  From there, move to Sauternes’ Hungarian counterpart; we think you should definitely try to find a Tokaji Aszu if you can (spelled and pronounced “Tokay” in English).  Tokaji is a rich, honeyed nectar that was revered by kings in the 17th century and is making a comeback after nearly disappearing to disease and Communist ownership of the vines in the 20th century.  Finally, as the wines you’re tasting are getting progressively richer, finish with Vin Santo, the traditional after-dinner, after-espresso dessert wine in Tuscany, which is traditionally served with biscotti cookies that you dip in the sweet wine.

From there, include a few reds in your tasting.  Among fine-wine lovers, Canada is known principally for their Ice Wine, made in the same style as the German Eiswein above.  Canada’s biggest producer, Inniskillin, produces a fascinating and delicious copper-colored Ice Wine from Cabernet Franc that would introduce something completely different to your tasting.  Another red dessert wine option, if you can find it, would be a Recioto della Valpolicella from Italy, a thick red that looks like a dry wine but tastes surprisingly rich & sweet.  From there, move to Port, the ubiquitous after-dinner drink loved by the British and made in Portugal’s Douro region.   Vintage Port is a serious wine, made only from the best vineyards in the best years (and priced accordingly).   We’d finish with a Pedro Ximenez, a particularly rich, sweet sherry from Jerez, Spain.

Music

We held this tasting recently and decided on a “sweet” iTunes mix.  I mean, a dessert wines tasting should be fun and light-hearted, not pretentious.  But to make it theme-appropriate…well, we compiled an admittedly ridiculous mix of songs that had the word “sweet,” the word “sugar” and/or the word “candy” in the title.  This seems lame until you realize how many great songs fit this description.  We kicked off the event with “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, before hitting golden oldies “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies.  From there we segued into the contemporary with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This,” Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams,” Guns n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Sara Bareilles’ “One Sweet Love,” Amos Lee’s “Sweet Pea,” and Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.”  And why stop there, when you can move to classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”  This mix is admittedly cheesy but your guests will be having fun by the end of this set, and will appreciate your effort to pick theme-appropriate music.  Trust us.  We tried it.

Pairings

Dessert wines pair best with dessert – why fight the theme?  Make some sweets!  You have enough styles of wine at this tasting to pair with light desserts as well as rich desserts, so serve a variety.  We’d definitely include some Italian biscotti cookies, if for no other reason than that your Vin Santo is designed to be served alongside biscotti for dipping.  You also can’t go wrong with brownies – they’re bite-sized and go well with many of your wines (particularly the reds).  Maybe make some chocolate chip cookies, which should work nicely alongside the white dessert wines.  And maybe round out the solution with a fruit-based dessert, like angel food cake with berries, or a fruit tart.  If you want to include a cheese, we’d go with English Stilton, which is a perfect match for Port.  Your guests will have a great time trying different wines with the different sweets.

Tasting Notes

Dessert wines are sweet because of their residual sugar content; while dry wines have residual sugar of 3% or less, dessert wines can have from 5-30% residual sugar.  The best dessert wines don’t taste overly syrupy because the wines have enough acidity to balance out the sugar.  In many cases, the wines achieve this higher sugar content because the winemakers leave the grapes on the vine longer, which makes the wines ripen more and become sweeter.

We’d recommend printing out some tasting notes that give a little background on each of the wine varietals you’ll be serving.  Each of the wines has an interesting back story.  Sauternes, for example, is made when the benevolent fungus Botrytis cinerea (also known as “noble rot”) takes hold of the grapes and concentrates the sugars.  Tokaji Aszu is made sweet in the same way, in fact “Aszu” is Hungarian for “rot.”  Ice wine, meanwhile (both the Canadian version and German Eiswein) are made by letting the grapes stay on the vine so long they actually freeze on the vine with the arrival of winter.  Vin Santo is made by letting the Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes partially dry out for three to six months, during which time half the liquid in the grapes (the water) evaporates, concentrating the sugar.  Moscato is traditionally enjoyed at Christmas in Piedmont, Italy, whereas Port is a classic Christmas drink in Britain (paired with Stilton cheese).  And Pedro Ximenez is a particularly sweet, rich variety of sherry often used as a blending wine to add sweetness to lighter sherries, or used as a dessert treat on its own.  Rumor has it that Spanish men in Jerez pour it over ice cream and enjoy it after dinner with a cigar.

The most famous and celebrated dessert wine in the world is Chateau d’Yquem, the only Sauternes rated as ”Premier Cru Superieur” (Great First Growth) in the original 1855 classification of Bordeaux chateaux.  Wines from Château d’Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness.  In addition, the wine is famously age-worthy; in a good year, a bottle will only begin to show its true qualities after a decade or two of cellaring.  Several vintages of Chateau d’Yquem have rated perfect scores from critics like Robert Parker.  Not surprisingly, this pedigree comes with a high price point; half-bottles of Chateau d’Yquem typically start at $130, and can cost significantly more in a particularly good vintage.  It would be great fun to include Yquem in your tasting, but if your budget doesn’t permit it, worry not; a bottle of Sauternes can be enjoyed for less than $20.  The other Sauternes we recommend for your event, Chateau de Farques, is a bit pricier, and was named one of Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines in 2008.

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