wine Features
Liquid Sweethearts

Dessert Wines:

Albert Mann Gewurztraminer Furstentum SGN 2000
($50 375ml)

Chateau Nairac 2001
($30 375 ml)

Chateau Soucherie Coteaux du Layon 2003
($17 750ml)

Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise 2003
($16 375ml)

The Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Vendange Tardive 2002
($70 750ml)

Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé Grand Siecle Alexandra 1997
($100 750 ml)

Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Rimage 2001
($42 750 ml)

By Jim Clarke

Candy “sweethearts” are a Valentine’s Day tradition, and a simple one: heart-shaped, sugary, and embossed with a straightforward message like “Love you” or “Be mine.” While they may have appeal for adults, most of us would like to express our feelings in a more sophisticated manner. France has often stood for sophisticated romance, and in my book, dessert wines can stand in for a candy sweetheart any day.

Sweethearts typically come in seven colors:

Orange: The Albert Mann Gewurztraminer Furstentum SGN 2000 evokes fruits and spices of every hue: violets, honey, mandarin, ginger, even a touch of maple. A SGN (Selection de Grains Nobles) wine is made with berries afflicted by botrytis, aka “noble rot,” which helps bring out the Gewurztraminer’s mandarin flavors. It’s full and rich, but the botrytis has concentrated not just the sugars, but also the acidity needed for a clean finish – there’s nothing cloying here. Furstentum is a Grand Cru vineyard which overlaps into the two communes of Kientzheim and Sigolsheim in Alsace; it’s noted for its elegant Gewurztraminers. ($50 375ml)

Yellow: Sauternes is probably France’s – if not the world’s – best-known source for botrytis-affected dessert wines, with prices that all-too-often reflect that fame. Chateau Nairac makes a reasonably-priced wine that represents well; the 2001, for example, has aromas of apricot, bergamot, kumquat, and lemon. Unlike Alsace’s SGN wines, the Nairac and other Sauternes are aged in new oak barrels. This gives the wine an even creamier mouthfeel than otherwise and integrates the intense spicy, smoky notes of botrytis. ($30 375 ml)

Green: For some reason, a green Sweetheart is lemon-flavored. Chenin Blanc grown in the Loire Valley often has a lemony note, in the dessert wines this can transform into a creamy, lemon-curd tone. The Chateau Soucherie Coteaux du Layon 2003 tops this aroma with touches of honey and flowers. Even though it’s the Chateau’s entry-level sweet wine, it’s still quite complex and even merits aging. ($17 750ml)

Purple: A purple Sweetheart is grape-flavored, and few grapes actually retain their grapey character in wine form as well as Muscat does. In the Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise appellation of the Southern Rhone, winemakers don’t harvest their grapes late or hope for botrytis to make their sweet wines; instead, they fortify the wine with a neutral brandy as its fermenting; the extra alcohol stops the fermentation while there’s still sugar in the wine. Paul Jaboulet Ainé makes a classic Beaumes-de-Venise; the 2003, for example, has a grape and flower nose; on the palate it’s richer, with some apricot and pineapple flavors emerging. The finish is smooth and sweet, but still clean. ($16 375ml)

White: From a grape point of view, all of the above wines are white, but Pinot Gris actually ripens to a pinkish hue on the vine (but it’s still vinified as a white). It’s grown in Alsace, where its thin skin means it’s particularly susceptible to botrytis. As a mutation of Pinot Noir, it can take on aromas we normally associate with red wine. The Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Vendange Tardive 2002 has everything you’d want in a late harvest Pinot Gris. Honey and mushroom aromas dominate (Yes, I know it sounds odd, but believe me, it’s delicious.); baked apple and butterscotch notes round out the picture. It’s full and rich, but not as sweet as the previous wines, and the length is incredible. The Altenbourg vineyard, while not a Grand Cru, is directly adjacent to Furstentum mentioned previously. ($70 750ml)

Pink: If the target of your affections doesn’t have a sweet tooth, rosé Champagne is the way to go. Pink Champagne attains a complexity that non-sparkling rosés have never aspired to; there’s something about the methode champenoise that adds layers of interest and flavor to the wine. The Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé Grand Siecle Alexandra 1997 is among the best; rich raspberry, cherry, and strawberry aromas are layered together with touches of flint and smoke. It’s a full-bodied wine, but very focused, and the bubbles are smooth and silky. This sparkler has the joie-de-vivre you expect in Champagne, but it’s very serious about it, so be careful – the wine (and its price) may put more force behind its message than a little candy does. ($100 750 ml)

Brown: At last, a wine to go with that box of chocolates! Banyuls, just over the border from Spain, makes a Grenache-based dessert wine that is France’s answer to Port. It’s a fortified wine, like the Beaumes-de-Venise mentioned previously, but darker, richer, sweeter, and fuller. The Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Rimage 2001 shows the range of flavors a good Banyuls can offer: black cherry, smoke, plum, dark chocolate, and a garnish of baking spices. This wine will warm the heart even on the coolest February night. ($42 750 ml)

Here’s looking at you, sweetheart.


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   Published: February 2006