Vino & Veritas: Avoiding JAG and trying dessert wine


Call me crazy, but I am going to violate a new RECORD policy. Not only must all columns now address HLS’s capitulation to the military, all apparently must take the exact same position (see last week’s identical Lipper and Ginn columns). In the spirit of dissent, I am going to write about wine.

If you generally don’t drink much wine, it is quite possible that you have never had dessert wine. And if you haven’t, you are missing out on one of the true pleasures of wine. Seriously, if I convince you of nothing else this year, go buy a bottle of dessert wine and try it. You’ll see that chocolate cake’s got nothing on a good Sauternes.

“Dessert wine” is a general term for wines that are sweet and perform well as desserts. Beyond that, they vary enormously. They come from all over the world and from all types of grapes. Perhaps the easiest way to categorize them is by the method of production. There are three types you will most likely encounter.

One is ice wine, which comes from grapes that have been left on the vines long enough so that the grapes actually freeze. The ice is separated from the grapes, leaving more concentrated juices with higher sugar content per volume. The resultant wine, which you may also see labeled as Eiswein (German), is richer and sweeter than normal wine.

A second type comes from grapes infested with Botrytis Cinerea. Botrytis, or the “noble rot,” is a fungus that will grow on grapes in certain climates. Botrytis growth has two principal effects on wine. First, it sucks the water from the grapes, leaving their juices sweeter and less diluted. Second, the Botrytis adds a flavor of its own, resulting in wonderfully complex aromas and tastes. Perhaps the most well-known of all Botrytis wines is sauternes, from the Sauternes district in the Bordeaux region of France.

The third type is fortified wine. Fortified simply means that alcohol has been added at some point. Not all fortified wines are dessert wines — some are not at all sweet. Fortified dessert wines are usually made by adding the alcohol during fermentation. Since fermentation burns sugar (my chemist friends will forgive the loose explanation), and since the added alcohol stops fermentation, wine made in this way will have leftover sweetness. Port is probably the fortified sweet wine we see most around here. Like fortified wines generally, however, port need not only be thought of for dessert. In fact, I once tried to order port for dessert in Paris. The server looked at me stunned, as if I had just suggested that HLS was right to capitulate to the military. Apparently, port is only used as an aperitif in France.

For tasting, I chose one wine from each of these categories. All prices are for half bottles (dessert wines often come in that size). I would recommend all three, in the following order of preference.

1998 Château Doisy Da