Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, dessert wines offer an experience that leaves you feeling favoured by the gods. Celestial jewels of the wine world, the most life-changing wines have the structure to balance the residual sugar, transforming the sickly recollection of a bad call made in youth, to an otherworldly experience of poise, harmony, length and flavour.
Sweetness of wine is determined by natural sugar in grapes with relative levels of acidity, alcohol and tannin. Sugar and alcohol enhance a wine’s sweetness; acid (sourness) and tannin counteract the sweetness. Dessert wine has more sugar than standard table wine due to when grapes are picked – usually much later, when grapes have shrivelled – but with all-important acidity to balance high sugar levels. Winemakers do not ferment the much smaller must (freshly pressed juice, skins, seeds and stems of the grapes) to dryness, but cut the fermentation short to reduce alcohol (8 per cent). For winemakers sweet enough to make it for us, it’s a process that takes care and precision.
How sweet are you? Despite sweetness, all wine is essentially an acid, so the rule of thumb when matching dessert wine is choosing a wine that is at least as sweet as the food, with enough acidity to balance the whole combination. As with any food and wine pairing, it’s all about teasing out elements in the other and not overemphasising the same characteristics of both.
Create your pairing by using the wine as a condiment to your food (or vice-versa), to balance the structures of sweetness, sourness, saltiness and spiciness. And it’s not all about dessert. One of my best matches was a lightly sparkling, sweet Moscato with crayfish. But if it’s all too hard, dessert wines make superb aperitifs. A heaven-sent, chilled five o’clock tipple that lifts the blood sugar, allowing the energy needed to create that which you intend to match with the wine in the first place. Plus, it will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Johner Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Noble rot refers to the fungus Botrytis Cinerea that forms on the skin of healthy grapes and concentrates sugar by sucking out water mass. Responsible for many of the most famed dessert wines of the world, noble wines produce a lush and bittersweet marmalade characteristic to balance the intense residual sugar. With much of the grape mass lost, however, it can take a whole vine’s worth of shrivelled fruit to produce one glass of wine.
Bright gooseberries, passion fruit and lime marmalade, this little sweetie shows true varietal Sauvignon Blanc character with a botrytis influence. Rich and lush, the wine features elevated levels of acidity with concentration of bitter-sweet and balanced marmalade-like flavours. Superb with intense blue cheeses for a yin and yang union of tangy, sweet, salty succulence.
Te Muna Valley Vineyards ‘Autumn Harvest’ Pinot Gris 2014
Here in Wairarapa, the most common practice is to harvest the grapes as late as possible, when sugars have concentrated but lively, mouth-watering acidity remains. Late-picked when the grapes have developed much flavour and sugar, this light (10 per cent alc/VOL) wine suits a wide range of applications from aperitif and antipasti to an after-dinner treat.
Fallen autumnal apples baked in a crumble pie on the nose, with notes of spiced marmalade on the palate and finishing in apple-strudel goodness. Match with dried fruit and nuts, or be daring with a spiced ginger crème brulee.
By Nicola Belsham, Martinborough Wine Merchants