First published in The Irish Times, 18th December, 2015
How often do you complain about the cost of wine? I have a regular moan, but there is one time where I feel the producer seldom receives a fair price. Naturally-made sweet wines are the most costly and complicated to make, yet hardly ever receive a price commensurate with the effort and risk involved. This is one occasion where I am usually happy to pay a premium.
To make a sweet wine, you can add brandy to a fermenting must, as they do with fortified wines. Or you can simply stop the fermentation by chilling the wine. The alternative is to leave the grapes on the vine. As the sugars increase over time, the water content, and therefore the eventual yield, decreases. That is in a good year.
If the producer is unlucky, he or she may lose part of all of the crop to bad weather. As the harvest typically takes place in November, December or even January, the risk is far greater than with conventional wines. At times, growers make several “tries” or passes through the vineyard, picking only selected bunches of over-ripe grapes. This too is hideously expensive.
There are several styles within this non-fortified camp; some grapes become infected with noble rot or botrytis cinerea, a mould that attacks the grapes, miraculously decreasing the water content while lending a unique flavour, variously described as honeyed, beeswax, orange peel, or marmalade to the wine. In some regions, conditions for botrytis do not occur and producers simply leave the grapes on the vine, allowing them to dry out and shrivel. This method, known as passerillage, can only be practised in regions where autumn conditions are favourable, notably in southwest France. Ice wine is made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine. The water content remains frozen, while the sugars and other dissolved solids are not. Therefore the juice is highly concentrated and exceptionally high in sugar. Production is limited to a few select areas, Germany and Canada being the two major producers.
There really is no excuse not to drink these wonderful wines. I try to avoid what I call body-builder wines: dessert wines that are incredibly sweet and unctuous. They may have impressive levels of sugar but I find they cloy after a few sips. I prefer lighter, less sweet wines with good levels of refreshing acidity. The French excel at these. Sauternes may be the best-known, but I believe the Loire valley and Chenin Blanc may well make the finest, most balanced and long-lived sweet wines of all. I am also a great fan of Jurançon and the other sweet wines of southwest France, two of which feature below. Further east, Alsace, Germany, Austria and Hungary all make superb dessert wines.
What to do with these treasures? They are perfect with all sorts of fruit pastries, including raspberry, strawberry and apple tarts, tarte tatin, bakewell pudding and pear tarts, including those with frangipan. You could also try one out with lighter fruit salads or crème brulée.I do not have a sweet tooth so I sometimes have a glass (or two) as my liquid dessert, or I drink them with blue cheeses. Roquefort, with its saltiness, is perfect. Of the Irish cheeses I think Crozier is probably the best match, but I am experimenting with my new favourite cheese, the delicious Young Buck cheese from Co Down.If you haven’t tried it, please do. You can mix savoury and sweet with simple but delicious matches such as blue cheese and pears, or blue cheese with walnuts. Those who indulge in foie gras will know that sweet wine is one of the great partners. Lastly if you are the sole dessert wine drinker in the house, don’t worry. Once opened, a bottle or half-bottle will keep for a week or more in the fridge so you can enjoy a small glass night after night – the perfect Christmas treat.
Wilson on Wine 2016 by John Wilson is now available to buy from irishtimes.com/ irishtimesbooks
BOTTLES OF THE WEEK
Grains Nobles de la Truffière 2011, Monbazillac, 12.5%
€22.95 per 50cl bottle
Rich, textured and honeyed with butterscotch and peaches, balanced nicely by the subtle acidity
Stockists: Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow
Domaine Ogereau 2014 Coteaux du Layon Saint Lambert,12.5%,
In an ideal world you would keep it for 10 years, but the young fresh pure honey and pear fruits are pretty irresistible right now
Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook