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Taste
WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
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sippin' sweeties
In the month of love, chill a bottle of something silky and bronzed
 
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For the perfect Valentine's Day treat, try the sensual pleasures of a sweet wine such as Campbells Rutherglen Muscat, with its mahogany color and rich, candied-fruit flavors. The muscat makes a perfect pair with almond biscotti.
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OFTEN, WHEN I am introduced to someone as "the wine guy," the immediate response is "Can you recommend a good bottle of wine?" I return the volley with a question of my own: "What style of wine do you prefer?" The next words are as predictable as the rain in Seattle. "Oh, I like a dry wine," the person will say, waiting eagerly for my recommendation. Of course, identifying dry wine as your preferred style is akin to saying that Earth is in the Milky Way. But what is truly surprising is how few people, if any, ever say they like a sweet wine.

Well, somebody is drinking the sweet stuff, because rare is the barrel room that lacks a late-harvest something. Sweet wines are labor-intensive and somewhat dodgy to make, but winemakers love a challenge, and they seem to have some sort of primal need to produce a dessert wine or two.

Sweet wines are made in such a dizzying variety of styles, and often sold at such stratospheric prices, that it is challenging to find the right bottle, and a near miss can be expensive. To winnow the field, I suggest you start with the grape. Do you like dry sauvignon blanc? Then look for sweet wines from Sauternes, or New World wines labeled late-harvest sauvignon blanc. Some especially good ones are made in Washington and California.

Enjoy gewürztraminer? Splendid. Late-harvest gewurz is made particularly well in Alsace (the bottle will say vendange tardive); but you will also find some stellar versions from Oregon. Riesling is king of the stickies. British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Australia and Germany excel here.

For my taste, it's tough to beat muscat (or moscato) for dessert wines. The mix of candied orange, peach and apricot with exotic scents of blossoms and spices, often melding into flavors of honey and caramel, is pretty much irresistible. The French and Italians do these wines well.

Most sweet wines are sold in half (375 ml) bottles, though some come in 500 ml packages. The 375s will prove more than adequate for dessert for four. Apart from their beautiful packaging and lovely colors, which often run into the burnished-mahogany end of the spectrum, these wines provide intense sensual pleasure due to their high concentration of flavors.

Whether the grapes have been left to ripen an extra long time or been frozen (thereby making ice wine) or been affected by botrytis (a noble rot that lends the flavor of honey) or been set out to dry into raisins (as in the passito wines of Italy), the net result is that the juice has been concentrated before fermentation. The resulting wine will be dense, sweet and lower in alcohol than regular wine (unless it has been fortified with neutral spirits). Alcohol and sugar content can usually be found on the label.

Serve these wines chilled, but not so cold that the aromas are deadened. Feel free to use your grandmother's cordial glasses; a little taste of decadently sweet wine goes a long way. These wines are dessert all by themselves, but if you want to serve something with them, be sure that the wine is sweeter. A triple crème cheese works well, or an almond-based dessert. Dark chocolate can be heavenly with the muscats and late-harvest zins.

A final bonus: Dessert wines will keep quite well for several weeks after opening. Just replace the cork and keep the wine in the fridge. Pull it out about half an hour before serving.

With the year's sweetest holiday at hand, here are some dessert wines sure to please your sweetie. All half bottles except as noted.

MUSCATS

Campbells Rutherglen Muscat ($15). Dark, smooth and creamy; candied fruit flavors wrapped in buttered, roasted nuts.

Dom. de Durban 2001 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($15). Perfumed and penetrating; candied fruits dance across your palate.

Ch. de Jau 2001 Muscat de Rivesaltes ($20/500 ml). Peach and apricot flavors dominate; a fat, fleshy finish.

Quady 2000 Essensia ($12). Like a mouthful of candied mandarin oranges, silky yet piercing. Quady's Elysium (black muscat) is more syrupy, but delicious.

SWEET RED WINES

Sineann CJ 2001 Zinfandel Port ($24). Fortified with pot-distilled eau-de-vie; a wonderful mélange of citrus peel, clove and ripe berries.

Santa Barbera Winery 2000 Zinfandel Essence "Lafond Vineyard" ($30). Sweet, with the startling intensity of ultra-ripe berries.

Bonny Doon Framboise ($11). Made from raspberries (not grapes) and fortified with neutral spirits, it's like sipping summer.

OTHER SWEET WHITE WINES

Campbells Rutherglen Tokay ($15). Gorgeous, liqueur-like flavors recall Grand Marnier, toffee and tea. Silky and smooth.

Lillypilly 1999 Noble Blend ($14). An Australian powerhouse. You'll sniff pollen, perfume, musky spice; honey and citrus follow.

Wairau River 1999 Reserve Botrytised Riesling ($24). From New Zealand, beguiling, spicy; blends pineapple/tropical fruits with hints of diesel.

Mas Cristine 1998 Rivesaltes ($20/500 ml). Gorgeous burnished mahogany color; caramel and candied citrus bouquet; decadent, unctuous finish.

Colosi 1999 Passito di Pantelleria ($30/500 ml). Sweet, candied, raisined, concentrated, immense.

Castellare S. Niccolo 1996 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico ($22). Nutty and oxidized; roasted, lingering toastiness.

Firestone 2001 Late Harvest Riesling ($22). Late-harvest California wines can be cloying, but this one delivers sweet citrus and apricot with good acid, texture and length.

Kiona 2001 Ice Wine ($12). This Red Mountain chenin blanc is amazingly concentrated, unwrapping layers of tropical fruits, butter and caramel on your tongue.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Times' Wednesday Food section. His e-mail address is wine@seattletimes.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.


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