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Dessert Wines

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By Larry Hanzo

During the holiday season, many people like to prepare and serve a complete, gut busting dining experience which usually includes a fabulous dessert. And, if you're really going for the brass ring, you'll want the absolute best wine match for the dessert.

There is one simple rule for pairing dessert wine with the chosen dessert, i.e. match the color of the dessert to the color of the wine. For example, if you're serving chocolate decadence cake, pick a Port Wine or perhaps a harder to find Banyuls Remage. If the dessert is some sort of custard or fluffy cakes, serve a Sauternes or other light colored dessert wine. Prices can vary all over the place, but you can surely find something in your price range. Personally, I have two favorite dessert wines for the Christmas/New Years season. I usually get them as gifts so it makes the choice very easy.

The first is port wine. To understand what a port wine is requires a little bit of background. History tells us that Port was discovered in the 17th century when frequent was in France left British traders looking for an alternative source of wine. Discovering Portugal was both a blessing and a curse. The British discovered great wines, but a lot of it spoiled when it was shipped across the sea. They figured out a solution. They added brandy to fortify the wine, This was the first step towards creating what we know today as port. Making port today is done in two phases. The first phase starts out just like making normal table wine. The big change occurs when about half of the sugars have been converted into alcohol. The wine is then poured into a vat containing natural grape spirits (brandy). The alcohol strength should be about 150 proof. The high alcohol kills off the active yeasts and fermentation ends. The result is a sweet, sweet wine with about 10% residual sugar fortified to about 20% alcohol. There are 48 different grape varietals, virtually all local, most you've never heard of that can be used in making Port. Affordable Ruby and Tawny Ports make up the bulk of all Port wines produced. Ruby Port is made from a blend of wines aged in bulk for 2 - 3 years and then bottled young while still ruby in color. After bottling it is ready for immediate drinking and will not improve with age. The tastes are sweet, fresh, and fruity. Tawny Port is a blend of wines aged in wood for anywhere from 5 to 50 years. The basic Tawny is usually 5 years. Then it begins to lose it's color and acquires an amber-orange hue. Tawnys are generally dryer tasting and have a nutty flavor.

The second is Eiswein/Ice Wine. This is a type of dessert wine made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids do not freeze, but the water does, allowing a more concentrated grape "must" to be pressed from the frozen grapes resulting in a smaller amount of very sweet wine. With Ice Wine, the freezing happens before fermentation not afterwards. Unlike grapes used in making other dessert wines such as Sauternes,very expensive Tokay, or T.B.A., Ice Wine grapes should not be affected by Botrytis (noble rot). Only healthy grapes keep in good shape until the opportunity arises for an Ice Wine harvest. This gives Ice Wine it's characteristic refreshing sweetness balanced by high acidity

This wine is very labor intensive and very expensive. A decent Ice Wine will start out at about $50.00 for a 375ml bottle and go up to about $300.00

Consensus indicates that Ice Wine harvests can be traced back to Germany about 200 years ago. But they were a rare occurrence until the early 1960's. Production was assisted by advances in technology. Electrical outdoor lighting driven by portable generators, plastic netting for protection from animals, thermal clothing were some of the advances. Remember, the harvest takes place at night or early morning. and the pickers must wear gloves so as not to thaw the grapes from body heat. Ice Wines require a hard freeze (-8C or 17F) or colder to occur sometime after the grape is ripe which means that the grapes may hang on the vines for several months following the normal harvest. Austria, Germany, and Canada all follow the same rules, namely the VQA protocols. They are also the leading producers.

As stated earlier, Ice Wine is sweet but very refreshing due to it's high acidity. It has a medium to full body and a long lingering finish. The nose gives off aromas of peach, dried apricot, honey, citrus, figs, caramel, and green apple. It pairs well with poached fruits, fruit tarts, creme brulee, simple short breads and sugar cookies.

Truly enjoy this time of the year with family and friends.

Larry Hanzo