Pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie. All three typically appear on the Thanksgiving table after dinner. Why not add a dessert wine to pair with this final course? Inexplicably, despite the celebratory nature of the holiday, most hosts and guests jump straight to coffee – and then the couch. But if there ever were a justification for breaking out a magical elixir from the world’s most underappreciated wine category, Thanksgiving serves one up.
As if holding a mirror to human nature, almost every region ferments grapes into sweet liquid, but some have a stronger tradition of the practice than others. Given the vast range, from concentrated late harvest Riesling to rich fortified Port, here’s an overview of the most common categories of dessert wines grouped by the process, with suggestions for wines to find from each.
Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Banyuls and Rutherglen Muscat are all fortified wines, the first three being ones with which the world is most familiar. While these wines come from different countries and use different grapes (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Australia, etc.) they also have variations in the production process that affect the final style. However, the common thread across all fortified wine is the fact that each has had a distilled spirit, typically brandy added to it. This step increases the alcohol level above the average dry, still wine by as little as a percent or two, up to ten, depending on the style.
Wine to Find:
Port: Dow’s Vintage Port 1977. For a special occasion, you’ll want to serve the best, and in the port category, that means vintage. The wines are only made in top years from the highest quality fruit. The problem with drinking vintage is not just price, but approachability. Many need decades to mature before tannins soften and the wine approaches optimal drinking. 1977 was a declared year and a few retailers have bottles available online for an incredible $150.
Sherry: Lustau Almacenista Oloroso “Pata de Gallina.” Most people associate sherry with sweet wine, namely Harvey’s Bristol Cream. But the majority are dry. Straddling the middle between nutty, savory character and delicate sweetness is this oloroso from Lustau.
Late Harvest and Noble Rot
As the name implies, late harvest wine comes from grapes left on the vine past a normal harvest date to concentrate their sugars. There are many regions famous for this style, notably in Germany, Austria, France, and Hungary. When humid conditions are just right, grapes can take on a friendly fungus called botrytis cinerea. Known as “noble rot”, the fungus pierces the skins which allow water to evaporate, in turn, concentrating the juice. Noble rot wines have unusual and alluring aromas and flavors often identified with apricots, peaches, and nectarine. Chenin blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Furmint are the primary white grapes susceptible to the fungus.
Chateau d’Yquem from Sauternes in France is the world’s most famous noble rot wine. Many have heard of it but few have tasted it given the price tag. Because of the difficulty in picking relatively small quantities of infected grapes and the small quantity of wine the labor yields, it’s miraculous that Sauternes producers still make it. These wines are a true labor of love.
Wine to Find:
Late Harvest: Chateau Ste. Michelle Ethos. You don’t have to go all the way to Germany to find a lovely, aromatic late harvest Riesling. Washington State is an obvious source since it produces the most Riesling in America. And St. Michelle’s apricot-and-marmalade-scented late harvest “Ethos” from the Columbia Valley is the obvious bottle from this pioneering winery.
Noble Rot Style: Château Rieussec, Château Doisy-Daëne, Château Doisy-Védrines. While d’Yquem is the standard bearer, there are many wonderful Sauternes and Barsac producers who are far easier to find in your local wine shop for far less money, including these three.
Traditional ice wine, whether from Canada, Austria, or Germany, is made by leaving fruit on the vine until the temperature drops low enough for the grapes to freeze and concentrate the sugars. The conditions to create ice wine, known as Icewine in Canada and “eiswein” in Germany, are becoming less frequent and leaving fruit in the vineyard in hopes of the right circumstances coming along, is risky and expensive. However, when it does happen, pickers harvest the frozen grapes and then the winemaker presses them slowly and gently to ensure the frozen water remains separated from the sugary must. The mechanical way to mimic ice wine is through cryoextraction, where grapes are picked at normal harvest times and then frozen in refrigeration units. This method is commonly referred to as iced wine. The results between natural and manipulated can be wildly different, a reality reflected in the price.
Wine to Find:
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 2015: Canada’s most famous icewine comes from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, a region reliably cold enough to produce the style. It’s made from a grape called Vidal, perfect for northerly growing conditions. The wine is a luscious force of tropical fruit balanced against bright acidity.
Dried Grape Wines
This group includes the famous wines of Vin Santo del Chianti and Recioto Della Valpolicella, although it’s not hard to find winemakers all over the world experimenting with the style. The method used to concentrate the grape sugars, and consequently the sweetness of the wine, is dehydration of the fruit, either partially or completely. Think about the intensity of a raisin compared to a grape, and you’ll have an idea. The grapes might dry on the vine, on a straw mat, or hung on racks indoors. Shriveling fruit naturally yields less liquid, thus the wines are typically sold in 375 ml bottles.
Wine to Find:
Mullineux Straw Wine: A great example from a young couple winning lots of awards in Swartland, South Africa. Winemaker Andrea Mullineux dries Chenin Blanc grapes on a mat in the shade outdoors until they are half raisined, with flavors, acidity, and sugar concentrated into an intense, fragrant liquid gold.