Candy for Adults: Affordable Dessert Wines
By Jim Clarke
Even when I eat at home I like to end with a little something sweet,
and often a full-on dessert is too much. Dessert wines make a great finale,
but many are priced out of my everyday range - and usually with good reason.
For example: Sauternes require just the right conditions and a great many
trips through the vineyard, picking the grapes individually. Classic ports
from the Duoro demand extensive aging to achieve their rich flavors. Eisweins
can only be made from grapes frozen on the vine which can even, in Germany
at least, become dangerous to pick on the steep, icy slopes of the Rhein
and the Mosel. Making a good dessert wine is never child’s play – and
making it affordable can be even trickier - but here are a few I’ve come
“Nivole” Moscato d’Asti
|Moscato d’Asti is a wine whose star has risen of late – the
leader in light, refreshing dessert wines. Michele Chiarlo makes
wine within several different Piedmontese appellations – they
are especially devoted to Barbera d’Asti - but “Nivole” (“clouds” in
Piedmontese dialect) is by no means a neglected cousin. The grapes
are sourced from a single vineyard, Torre de Cantini, and carefully
handled at the winery to insure freshness and a correct balance
of sweetness and acidity. By law, Moscato d’Asti is restricted
to a maximum of 5.5% alcohol and therefore offers a relief from
heavier, fortified wines.
This moscato’s typical grapey aromas blend well, with orange blossoms
and a hint of candied ginger. The effervescence seems lighter than
other Moscato d’Asti’s I’ve tasted so the wine is smoother in the
mouth; well-balanced acidity and sugar provide a pleasing smoothness
|R.L. Buller and Sons
Premium Fine Tawny and Premium Fine
has a tradition for fortified dessert wines that many of us
in the U.S. are only just now becoming aware of. However,
R.L. Buller and Sons and some other producers in the Rutherglen
area are changing that by bringing some of their rich, complex
wines to a more prominent place on American retail shelves.
The Premium Fine Tawny is made from a mix of Grenache
and Shiraz grapes and aged in a solera system, a pyramidal
arrangement where newer vintages are blended progressively
into older wines; the average minimum age in this case is
fifteen years. The Premium Fine Tawny is a ruby wine with
some orange on the rim. Not as full-bodied as the Muscat,
it focuses around cherry and cola, with some vanilla and a
touch of white pepper which adds lift.
The Premium Fine Muscat is aged in the same manner, but uses the more obscure
Brown Muscat grape. While some of Buller’s wines can
reach into the higher price ranges, the Premium Fine Tawny
and Premium Fine Muscat are affordable wines that still demonstrate
what Australian stickies, as they’re know on their home
turf, are all about.
The Premium Fine Muscat is more complex, with date and
toffee aromas, which are complemented by brown butter and
a variety of baking spices, especially cloves and cinnamon.
A long finish trails off with a hint of quince paste.
|Hogue Late Harvest Riesling 2003
Hogue Cellars has been producing wine
in Washington since the early eighties. They market three
labels: Fruit Forward, Genesis by Hogue, and the Hogue Reserve.
The 2003 Late Harvest Riesling has just been released. Hogue
sources the bulk of its Riesling from the Yakima Valley, which
is generally cooler than most other Eastern Washington grape-growing
areas. This allows the Riesling grape to retain its acidity,
and the weather is reliable enough that leaving the grapes
on the vine longer for the extra sugars to make a Late Harvest
wine is not the expensive risk it can be in other parts of
The Late Harvest Riesling shows the peach and apricot
aromas one expects in a Riesling along with a note of orange
peel and rose petals. The sweetness is not intense and is
balanced by moderate acidity. Very refreshing, and a great
accompaniment to fresh berries or poached tree fruits.
|Pellegrino Passito di Pantelleria 2002 and Moscato di Pantelleria 2001
Pellegrino is the largest wine-producer in the Marsala
region of Sicily. Family-owned, they produce dessert
wines under the Pellegrino label as well as table wines
under the Duca di Castelmonte label. Their Passito is
actually produced by combining two common sweet wine
techniques: raisinating the grapes to intensifiy sweetness
and aroma, and fortification to raise the alcohol level
and stop fermentation, leaving some residual sugar.
Beyond the somewhat typical dessert wine aromas of dates and
apricot, this wine showed some surprisingly bright and fresh
citrus notes, as well as a slice of green apple. It’s
very smooth and round in the mouth, despite the crisp acidity
on the finish.
The Moscato Di Pantelleria is
fortified, but without the use of dried grapes. However, it
also profits from the island of Pantelleria’s volcanic soils
and arid climate. It is not frizzante like its more famous,
northern cousin Moscato d’Asti.
Scents of honey, canned peaches, and apricot resting
on a mineral base. The mineral qualities and high acidity
serve to lighten the wine, working much as the spritziness
of Moscato d’Asti does.
5-Year Old Malmsey Madeira
|As a waiter I once made a cross-recommendation
with a guest – he would give tawny port another try, and
I would go and find a bottle of Malmsey Madeira. He and Blandy’s
have saved me a lot of money since then. Madeira has been pushed
off the radar screen for a while, but these fortified wines
have a long tradition for high quality and were once so popular
in the U.S. that the bulk of Madeira wine was exported to the
East Coast. Malmsey, made from the Malvasia grape, is the sweetest
and richest style. Madeira is, like port, generally non-vintage;
Blandy’s makes a 10 and a 15-year-old version in addition
to the 5 year-old.
Rich and unctuous, with lots of dates, figs, and prunes as well as
a rich, macadamia nuttiness. Full in the mouth, with a long finish.
Madeiras are also nigh indestructible, so you can open this for a
glass and then keep the bottle on the shelf for much longer than many
other wines before losing too much flavor.
2002 Electra Orange Muscat and 2002
Essensia Orange Muscat
Orange Muscat is California’s answer to Moscato d’Asti.
Quady started producing the wine as an experiment in 1990,
with immediate success. Using sterile filtration the fermenting
must is arrested at about 4% alcohol. The “orange”
in Orange Muscat is actually the varietal, a rare sub-variety
of Muscat also found in France and Italy.
The Electra dances on your tongue – the name “Electra”
comes from the zip that crisp acidity and a slight fizziness
give the wine. A variety of orange flavors appear, especially
tangerine and nectarine, rounded out by a quieter peach note.
The Essensia is Electra’s
big brother, both in birth order and character. Fermentation
is stopped by fortifying the wine up to 15% alcohol, and the
wine then receives three months in French oak. The name “Essensia”
is a tribute to the richest style of Hungary’s famous
and much more expensive sweet wine, Tokaji.
The orange here is less pronounced – more like
marmalade - while apricot and some nutty flavors appear. A
light floral note floats on top of these richer aromas, and
the surprisingly dry finish goes on and on.
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