By Nan McCreary
It’s February, and that means it’s time to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Whether you observe the holiday on February 14, or anytime during month, there’s nothing better to accentuate the occasion than a sweet wine to share with your sweetheart. Here are a few you might want to consider, either as an aperitif, a dessert-pairing or simply as a pleasant quaff to enjoy in front of the fire on a damp, chilly night.
Port is the quintessential fortified sweet wine. Its home is in the Douro Valley in Portugal, where Romans cultivated grapes thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until the late 1600s, however, that Port as we know it today was referred to as “Port.” Basically, there are two styles of Port: Ruby and Tawny. Ruby Port is deep red in color and flavored with sweet flavors of red fruit. It is generally aged in the bottle. Tawny Port, on the other hand, is barrel aged and develops oxidative flavors of nut and caramel. Ruby Ports pair nicely with full-flavored cheeses — think a good farmhouse cheddar or Red Leicester — or a chocolate dessert, such as a brownie accompanied by red berries. Tawny Port complements nutty desserts like pecan pie or caramel cheesecake, and savory cheeses including smoked Cheddar, Pecorino and aged Manchego. Like most dessert wines, serve Ports slightly chilled.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes grown in Andalusia, Spain. Sherry dates back a few thousand years but didn’t become popularized in Europe until the 13th century. Like Port, Sherry is made in many styles. The driest, most saline style of Sherry is Fino. What makes this style unique is that the grapes are fermented under a blanket of yeast, called flor, which gives them oxidative flavors of almonds and hints of bread dough and wild herbs. Serve with tapas, olives, almonds and fried foods. Another common style of Sherry is Oloroso, the darkest and most complex style of Sherry. It’s aged the longest, and offers flavors of wood, hazelnut, dried fruits and exotic spices. For desserts, pair Oloroso Sherry with a sweet, but not too sweet dessert such as Chocolate Cheesecake or a fruit cake containing almonds.
The heaviest, and richest style of Sherry is Pedro Ximénez, commonly known as PX. This is definitely a dessert wine, and it’s in a class of its own. In fact, it’s been called the sweetest wine in the world. PX is made from the overly ripe grapes of the same name that are dried in the sun to obtain a high concentration of sugar. The wine is pleasantly viscous, with aromas and flavors of dried fruits, raisins and figs, with hints of honey, chocolate and licorice. Pair this with tiramisu, dark chocolate, pecan pie, orange or banana-based desserts, or just drink it on its own and call it dessert.
Ice Wine is a delicious treat produced from grapes that have been left on the vine to freeze. This concentrates the sugars in the grape because sugars, unlike water, don’t freeze. After harvest, the grapes are pressed while still frozen, resulting in a small amount of concentrated, extremely sweet juice to ferment. Ice wine can only be produced in very cold countries — Germany, Austria, Canada and the Finger Lakes regions of the U.S. Typically, ice wine is produced from grape varieties that grow in these climates, such as Riesling, Vidal, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc. Ice wine from white grapes will express notes of citrus, honey and stone fruit, while ice wine from red grapes has fruit flavors such as strawberry and light spice. Ice wines pair with fruit-driven desserts, cheesecake and soft cheeses like Brie and pungent cheeses such as Stilton.
For many, Sauternes is the “crème de la crème” of dessert wines. This sweet wine from Bordeaux is deliberately infected with a fungus called Botrytis cinera, which concentrates the sugars and provides luscious flavors of apricots, honey and peaches, accompanied by a nutty note. Sauternes make exceptional dessert wines, and pair well with blue cheese, foie gras and fruit-based desserts such as cheesecakes and tortes. Sauternes are among the longest-lived wines, and some of the most expensive. For the budget-conscious, Sauternes is packaged in a 375 ml bottle, which will give you and your dinner companions at least a taste of this liquid gold.
These suggestions are by no means a complete listing of dessert wines. Sherry and Port, for example, come in many styles other than basic Fino and Oloroso and Ruby or Tawny, respectively. One Sherry to put on your list is Harveys the Bristol Cream Solera Sherry, Jerez DO, a Cream Sherry that is the most famous Sherry in the world and best-selling Sherry in the U.S. Tokaji Aszú from Hungary, Beerenauslesen, Trockenbeerenauslese and late-harvest Riesling (Spätlese) are delicious wines made from hand-selected grapes affected by Botrytis cinera. Italian dessert wines, including Recioto della Valpolicella (made from the same grapes as Amarone) and Brachetto d'Acqui are go-to wines to pair with chocolate. For a special treat, try a Rutherglen Muscat from Victoria, Australia. This is considered to be one of the world’s sweetest wines, and is among the least expensive of dessert wines.
Whatever your choice, just make sure to match the wine and dessert on flavors, and make sure the dessert wine is sweeter than the dessert. You will never go wrong, and your sweetheart will thank you for it.