David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 12/09/2015:
Everyone has probably tasted a sweet wine. White Zinfandel comes to mind. These are wines that have the principle taste as sweetness and that’s about it. These wines are sticky sweet and are not really interesting. They lack complexity, one of the key components of quality wine.
Complexity is the thing that makes wine interesting. It is that thing that makes your eyes pop open and brows lift after the first taste. It’s that thing that makes people look at each other with delight just before another sip.
If you’ve only ever tasted sweet simple wines, you’d probably think that any wine marketed as dessert wine will be overly done with sweetness. This is generally true when you encounter a wine with the word “dessert” on the label but, if you know what you’re looking for, true dessert wines are tiny little expressions of divinity in your mouth. Nothing in the world of wine can compare with the cornucopia of complex flavors found in true dessert wines. For the uninitiated, the best two examples to start with are Sauternes and Ice Wine.
Sauternes is a region in France just south of Bordeaux. Following the French practice of naming wines after where they grow, Sauternes comes from Sauternes. The wine is made primarily from the sémillon grape. The land in Sauternes slopes gently down toward the Garonne River. This makes for cool, foggy mornings that develop into sunny, clear afternoons. This is the perfect condition for growing a fickle fungus called Botrytis cinerea, more commonly known as noble rot.
The fungus attacks the outside of the grape berries, sucking water from the fruit to feed itself. The fruit shrivels, turns black, grows a white hairy mold and looks awful. The berries are reduced in moisture content but not flavor as the fungus doesn’t effect the remaining juice. This juice is subsequently highly concentrated in flavors and sugars.
The winemakers harvest the infected sémillon crop at the very end of the season and add a touch of sauvignon blanc to make their wine. Sauternes is often aged in oak for two to three years before bottling and can age for more than 100 years.
The wine is golden in color and aged examples take on the color of an old copper penny. A Sauternes can reward a drinker with flavors of honey, honeysuckle, honeydew, pineapple, mango, papaya, almond, hazelnut, fig, maple syrup-covered French toast, creme brulee and salted caramel — all in the same sip.
Ice Wine is Germany’s Sauternes. It uses Botrytis-infected riesling for its base. But the Germans also wait for the temperature to get below freezing before they harvest and press the fruit. With frozen fruit, the remaining water has turned to ice. This results in a very small amount of extremely concentrated nectar.
Ice Wine is luscious and intensely flavored. The wine has the flavors of honey and apricots with strong aromas of ripe tropical fruits such as mango, papaya and pineapple. While sweet, it has a firm backbone of acidity making it perfectly balanced.
Both Sauternes and Ice Wine are sold in half-sized bottles (375 ml) and cost a minimum of $20. Ice wine is more common but is often more expensive. Sauternes only comes from France while examples of Ice Wine can come from Germany, New York, Canada and Minnesota. Canadian and German examples are the most highly prized.
These wines are sweet, complex and refreshing. Serve them well-chilled and serve them instead of dessert.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.