Like most wine drinkers, we tend to focus on dry wines for most of the year. But when winter comes, we start thinking sweet.
A glass of dessert wine after a meal, with cheese, with dessert or on its own, as the dessert, makes meals more of an occasion. Dessert wines are little luxuries, and the cold, dark days of winter offer a perfect opportunity to entice customers to splurge on them.
The world of dessert wines includes varieties of numerous types, origins and price levels, from as little as $115 a case to as much as $3,000. Different types have different food affinities. Sweet red wines, such as port, can be delicious with a chocolate dessert, for example, while a sweet Riesling complements fruity desserts.
Every wine-producing country makes dessert wines, but the methods and grapes vary.
One category of dessert wines is that of botrytised white wines. These wines get their sweetness from grapes that have shriveled on the vine because of botrytis, a fungus usually referred to as “noble rot.” Everything in the grapes becomes concentrated—the sugar, the acidity and the flavors.
Grape varieties prone to botrytis in certain wine regions include Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Some botrytised wines, such as fine German Rieslings, have no oaky character. Others, such as France’s Sauternes, usually age in oak barrels, and still others, such as Hungary’s Tokaji Azsu, could fall into either style.
Because the presence of botrytis is a fairly rare natural phenomenon, these are among the most expensive dessert wines and are therefore suitable mainly in high-end restaurants. Botrytised wines are usually available in 375-ml bottles, which are the best size to stock, considering the richness of the wines and their cost. Offering them by the glass is a good idea because a little bit of these extravagant beauties goes a long way. Pair the glass of wine with a fruity dessert such as an apple tart or an apricot-dominant sweet, a creamy dessert, or a rich soft cheese.
Another dessert wine category is dried-grape wines. The grapes for these wines become sweet through being dried almost into raisins, generally after harvest. These wines can be as rich as botrytised wines but they lack the particular flavor complexity—a honeyed tang—that botrytis brings. These wines are mainly, but not exclusively, white.
Examples include Southern Italy’s Moscato Passito as well as Recioto di Soave, red Recioto di Valpolicella and Tuscan Vin Santo.
Food pairings for these whites are similar to those for botrytised wines, while the reds can take more substantial flavors, such as desserts with dried fruits or semi-hard cheeses.
A third category of dessert wines is so broad that it encompasses both affordable wines and rare treasures. This is the category of sweet fortified wines. These wines generally gain their sweetness from very ripe grapes whose natural sugar only partially ferments before the fermentation is halted by the addition of alcohol. The alcohol content of these beverages ranges from 15 to more than 20 percent. Port, which is mainly red, is a prime example, as are Southern France’s vin doux natural wines, such as red Banyuls or white Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Sweet Sherry is another example, although its sweetness comes from sweetening after fermentation rather than from retaining natural grape sugar.
WINE OF THE WEEK DelaForce “Curious & Ancient” 20-Year-Old Port Tawny ports are an overlooked style, less powerful than darker ports but very rich in flavor due to long aging at the winery. DelaForce is a tawny specialist. This wine has aromas and flavors of roasted nuts and dried apricots and figs. It’s perfect with hard cheese or with desserts featuring nuts or dried fruits. Wholesale price per case: $274
DelaForce “Curious & Ancient” 20-Year-Old Port
Tawny ports are an overlooked style, less powerful than darker ports but very rich in flavor due to long aging at the winery. DelaForce is a tawny specialist. This wine has aromas and flavors of roasted nuts and dried apricots and figs. It’s perfect with hard cheese or with desserts featuring nuts or dried fruits.
Wholesale price per case: $274
Port is a particularly versatile winter dessert wine. It comes in fairly delicate styles such as tawny ports and concentrated, intense styles such as vintage ports. Most major houses make a very good, moderately priced premium ruby or reserve ruby style—formerly referred to as “vintage character” port—which is an easy point of entry for newcomers.
A final advantage of Port is that it keeps well for several days after the bottle is opened. Pair a glass of Port with a berry or chocolate dessert or with a blue-veined cheese and walnuts, an irresistible classic combination.
Dessert wines are a splurge for diners, in terms of both money and calories. Winter’s cold gives your customers the perfect excuse to indulge, provided that you give them the opportunity.