What's for dessert? At Café Shelburne, The Green Room, Starry Night Café, Trattoria Delia and a number of other fine area restaurants, the after-dinner menu includes after-dinner wines. These special beverages aren't just sweet, but packed with the voluptuous flavors of fruit, nuts, spices and honey.
Because dessert wines are intense, small quantities satisfy. One bottle should be enough for six small servings - it's rare for anyone to drink more than a glass. And while some selections sell for over a hundred dollars a bottle, plenty go for between $7 and $20. Another bonus: High sugar and alcohol content mean that they can be kept in the fridge for weeks, unlike dry wines that oxidize after just a few days.
But the best thing about dessert wine is what it does for dessert. Paired correctly, the combination of wine and dessert can be ethereal. The fact that the wines aid in digestion doesn't hurt, either, especially after a bountiful holiday meal. And matching wine with sweets isn't hard to do - it just takes a little understanding of how dessert wines are produced.
Dessert wines come from the same grape varietals that are used to make dry wines - Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Muscat to name a few. The differences stem from how they are processed. With the exception of fortified wines, most dessert wines begin with highly concentrated grape juice. That involves allowing water to evaporate from the grapes - a time-consuming and risky process; it's easier just to pick and process them as soon as they are ripe. Lots of fruit is lost in the process. That's one reason the cost is so high.
There are different ways to concentrate the flavor of the grapes. One involves drying the harvested grapes as if making raisins - referenced in the writings of both Hessiod and Homer, it's a winemaking technique that dates back to at least the 8th century BC. Vin Santo, one of Italy's most famous wines, is made this way, as is any wine labeled passito or Recioto. These wines have "dried-fruit" flavors reminiscent of figs and raisins. Vin Santo also derives a nutty quality from the wooden barrels in which it's aged.
To make "late-harvest wines," vintners leave the clusters of grapes on the vine for longer than usual, so the fruit begins to wither. These wines tend to be easy to identify because their names often include the words "late harvest." On French wines, the term is vendange tardive. Late-harvest white wines frequently have apricot, pear, and peach flavors, but they can also taste like tropical fruit. Late-harvest reds will likely feature aromas such as berry and plum.
If the weather is right and the winemaker lucky, grapes that aren't picked when just ripe might acquire Botrytis cinerea. The name may sound like something a nice grape would want to avoid, but Botrytis - referred to as "noble rot" in the wine world - actually does wonderful things to fruit. It gives wine a syrupy consistency and a honeyed flavor, and contributes earthy notes. Botrytised wines include French Sauternes, Tokay from Hungary and German Beerenauslese. These are some of the most treasured and expensive dessert wines on the market.
Grapes that grow in colder climates can be made into ice wine - called Eiswein in Germany. Often, grapes for ice wine are allowed to freeze and thaw several times, losing moisture each time. Then the grapes are pressed while still frozen. Ice wines frequently have honeyed, tropical fruit flavors. Their luscious sweetness is balanced by high acidity, which can add touches of citrus. Depending on the varietal, ice wine can also have notes of spice, lavender and rose.
Wines such as Port, Madeira and many Muscats are "fortified" by adding brandy during fermentation. The method raises the alcohol content, which explains why in Vermont, most fortified wines are only sold at state liquor stores. Some of the Muscats aren't quite as boozy, and are also available at supermarkets and gourmet shops. Fortified white wines may have orange and spice aromas, while reds can taste like dark fruit and berries. When fortified wines are aged, they can take on nutty, toasty and caramelized characteristics.
There are two major schools of thought when it comes to pairing wine and food. James Townsend of Vermont Wine Merchants recommends the "soul mate" approach. He advises looking for flavors present in the dessert and choosing a wine with similar characteristics. A dessert with almonds would go well with a nutty wine, for example. Townsend suggests matching a sparkling Moscato from Italy with light, fruity desserts. The idea is that the taste of one will heighten the enjoyment of the other.
Jon Griesser, manager of Trattoria Delia, takes an "opposites attract" tack. He believes that harmonizing complementary flavors is key to a successful duo. "Sometimes people pair a very heavy dessert wine with a very heavy dessert," he says. "I think that can mask good qualities." For this reason, he likes to match Italian dessert wines with a cheese plate. The cheese brings salt, fat and occasionally "sharpness" to the equation, while the wine provides acidity, sweetness and nutty flavors. "Balance," he suggests, "is the heart of Italian cooking."
For those who are still confused, there's always the third option: Simply uncork the dessert wine and let it stand on its own.
What Goes With What
Vin Santo and other dried-grape wine:
You'll spend: $7 and up
Pair it with: Crisp dry cookies, desserts featuring dried fruits and nuts, Italian desserts
Examples: Biscotti, amaretti, panettone, zabaglione and tiramisu, baklava, pecan pie, fruitcake, gingerbread, Italian cheese
Late Harvest Wine:
You'll spend: $10 and up
Pair it with: Cheese, citrus-y desserts, anything made with orchard fruits such as apricot, peach, apple and pear; reds go well with plum and berry dishes
Examples: Roquefort and other blue cheese, mascarpone, key lime pie, lemon meringue pie, apple pie or tart, fruit sorbet
You'll spend: $14 and up
Pair it with: Creamy desserts, caramel, honey
Examples: cheesecake, crème brûlée, crème caramel, peach pie, vanilla custard, bananas Foster, sticky toffee pudding, ripe fruit, cheese
You'll spend: $18 and up
Pair it with: Rich, creamy or buttery desserts, dishes made with fruit jam, tropical fruits
Examples: cheesecake, crème brûlée, shortbread, apricot jam tart, grilled pineapple, mango mousse, kiwi
Sweet Fortified Wines:
You'll spend: $14 and up
Pair it with: Chocolate desserts, sharp cheese, desserts made with dried fruit, anything with "pie spices"
Examples: Chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake, Stilton cheese and other blue cheeses, sharp cheddar, aged gouda, plum pudding, fruit cake, gingerbread, spice cake, Linzer torte, tiramisu
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