Candy for Adults: Affordable Dessert Wines

by Jim Clarke
April 2004

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 across recently:

Michele Chiarlo
“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 and elegance.

R.L. Buller and Sons
Premium Fine Tawny and Premium Fine Muscat

Australia 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 world.

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

Cantine 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. Pellegrino Passito di Pantelleria 2002

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

The Electra 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.