Back in the days before refrigeration, sweet wine reigned supreme. The high sugar levels functioned as a preservative, a means of extending the life of the wine beyond the six to 12 months common at the time. And while centuries ago these beverages were reserved for aristocrats and tables of the rich because people’s palates preferred them, today the opposite is true—dry wines tend to rule.
Even so, modern oenophiles thoroughly embrace and enjoy these sweet sips, which can be priced from affordable to stratospheric. The easiest and least costly dessert wines to make are those in which fermentation is stopped early. The process creates residual sugar—a portion of sugar not converted to alcohol. The most popular examples include Ports, as well as Muscats produced in the South of France. In both of these types, the wines are fortified, meaning neutral spirits have been added to stop the fermentation and raise the levels of sugar and alcohol.
Another method relies on cold weather to increase the sugar levels in grapes. German winemakers in particular take full advantage of this fact to elevate the production of eiswein (ice wine) to a fine art. To make this uncommon and expensive elixir, fruit is literally left to freeze on the vines and is sometimes harvested as late as December. Canadian ice wine, pioneered by wineries such as Inniskillin, is a less pricey yet high-quality and delicious alternative to the German version.
The most famous sweet wines are produced as a result of Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” This benevolent fungus attacks grapes from the outside and dehydrates them, raising the sugar level while leaving the acidity intact. White grapes with thin skins, such as Sémillon and Riesling, are the main targets. These wines are difficult to make because the fungus only appears under specific weather conditions and the fruit must be harvested by hand, sometimes one berry at a time. However, results can be glorious: Wines of the Quarts de Chaume in the Loire Valley made from Chenin Blanc and the renowned late-harvest Rieslings of Germany’s Mosel region are pure, honeyed gold.
The best known botrytis-affected wine is the spectacular Sauternes. Produced in the southern Graves region of Bordeaux, where the maritime climate frequently yields conditions favorable for noble rot, Sauternes generally is composed of a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes. Along with the red wines of the Médoc, the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes were ranked in France’s official Classification of 1855. These two sweet varietals were broken into First and Second Growths. Just one property stood out as a Superior First Growth: the peerless Château d’Yquem.
The singular estate has been making wine since the early eighteenth century. It was owned for more than 200 years by the Lur-Saluces family and then purchased in 1996 by LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton. An 80/20 blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, the magical liquid is highly sought-after and extremely expensive. Bottles from the best recent vintages, such as the 2001, have commanded prices in the neighborhood of $1,000. Anyone with very deep pockets might want to pick up a bottle of the 1811 for $120,000.
Sweet love leads to fine food marriages. Those who believe the only suitable pairings for Sauternes are foie gras and strong cheeses need to broaden their horizons and consider some unexpectedly happy couples. On its website, Château d’Yquem plays matchmaker, hitching its wine with oysters and mussels (favorites of Balzac and Dumas, respectively), lobster, poultry, game and desserts like poached pears and apple tart.
|Sharp cheeses and poached pears are winsome complements to dessert wines.|
Sommeliers have long agonized over how to follow Sauternes when it is served early in a meal with foie gras. To solve the dilemma, Yquem suggests serving consommé immediately afterward to refresh the palate.
You will fall in love all over again when dessert arrives.