How Sweet It Is:
Dessert wines for all budgets
Tis the season to indulge. And what better way than with dessert wines, a perfect extravagance for the festive days ahead.
Dessert wines come in many varieties — sparkling and still; red, white and rosé; light or brooding; low in alcohol and high in alcohol; fortified or unfortified — but they are all sweet. Some cost a pittance, others a small fortune. They can serve as dessert or be served with dessert. There’s something sure to please every palate and every pocketbook, something appropriate to end a special meal or suit a special friend.
To make the best pairings, there’s one rule to keep in mind: The wine should be sweeter than the dessert. And one bit of commonsense: lighter, low-alcohol wines pair well with light desserts; heavier, powerful wines pair well with intense desserts.
Here are some dessert wines that I hope will bring good cheer to your holiday table. And remember, they also make great gifts — and are a nice treat after some exhausting holiday shopping. (Prices, which will vary considerably, are suggested retail for standard 750-ml bottles, except as noted. Many dessert wines come in 375-ml [12.7 oz.], or half, bottles; a serving should be about 2-3 ounces, so a small bottle goes a long way. If you can’t find the wines locally, a good website to check is www.wine-searcher.com.)
The muscat grape, distinguished by its versatility, turns up in dessert wines from many regions. One of the most delightful is Italy’s Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont. Moscato d’Asti is slightly sparkling, or frizzante, light, with heady fruit and floral aromas of peaches, apricots and orange blossoms. It’s delicate, charming and never overpowering. Vietti’s Cascinetta (2005, $16, 350 ml, 5.5% alcohol) is an excellent example. Another lovely Moscato in the Italian style comes from, of all places, Israel. In addition to being delicious, Golan’s Moscato (2006, $10, 6% alcohol) has the added benefit, for some, of being kosher.
Non-sparkling Muscat wines are also good options, although they tend to be heavier and higher in alcohol. There are wonderful ones made in the U.S. as well as in France, like the aromatic Muscats de Beaumes-de-Venise from the southern Rhône.
I suggest Paul Jaboulet Aîné’s “Le Chant des Griolles” (2005, $21, 375 ml, 15.5% alcohol), which recalls peaches, grapes, apricots, mangos and lychees — a veritable fruit salad. From California, Gallo’s Twin Valley Moscato is a great buy, at only $6 for a 750-ml bottle. It’s light, 9% alcohol, reminiscent of peaches, honey and citrus. Muscat wines complement many desserts, including fresh fruit and most fruit desserts, including pies and tarts, panna cotta, zabaglione, panettone and cookies. Try them too with cheesecake and white chocolate.
Some dessert wines are made using grapes that have actually been frozen. The grapes for the ice wines made by Canada’s premier winery, Inniskillin, in the Niagara peninsula, freeze on the vine, as grapes for ice wine traditionally do. Though fully ripe in October, during the fall freezes and thaws, the berries become dehydrated and the flavors and aromas concentrated. They’re harvested, typically in mid-December, after temperatures have reached a bone-chilling 17°F. Because yields are low — just 5% to 10% of a normal crop — prices are high. The extremely aromatic resulting wines have intense flavors and marvelous complexity.
Though ice wines are made with many different grapes, in Canada, Vidal, a French-American hybrid that thrives in the cold, is classic. Redolent of nectarine, lychee, papaya, tangerine and orange blossom, Inniskillin’s Vidal (2006, $65, 375 ml, 9% alcohol) pairs well with desserts featuring citrus, pears, apples and tropical or stone fruits and blue or creamy cheeses. Inniskillin also offers a rare sparkling Vidal ice wine (2004, $90, 375 ml, 11% alcohol), which evokes apricots, mangos, lychees and caramelized apples and complements fresh fruit and stone fruit desserts, as well as sorbets, soufflés, pound or genoise cakes and strong cheeses.