Want a happy ending this summer? Finish off the season with a dessert wine paired with the classic French Clafouti. A cross between a cake and custard, this simple dish paired with the right bottle shows just how sweet a good match can be. If you want to skip the fat, go right ahead -- these wines are extraordinary all by themselves. Really, dessert wines get a bad rap, but as long as they're well made, they offer far more than just sugar on the palate. Whether Late Harvest, Fortified, Frozen or touched by the Noble Rot, these wines are satisfying and complex, with a long, lingering finish. Everything a happy ending should be.
THE NOBLE ROT
What is noble about rot? Sauternes, that's what. The fungus known as Botrytis cinerea attacks grapes when the season is particularly humid. Often, it's just a headache, but under controlled conditions, it creates astonishing wines. When touch by this rot, the grapes split open and lose moisture; the sugars, acids and flavors then become concentrated. The resulting wines are honeyed; complex with a bracing acidity that balances the sweetness. The best examples last for decades, even centuries, and are among the world's most treasured wines.
Chateau Les Tuileries is a classic Sauternes made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Suited for a variety of sweets, it also pairs beautifully with blue cheese.
Grapes don't have to rot, they can just hang out. In order to concentrate the sugars, growers leave them on the vine to raisin. If a little fungus sets in, fine, if not, that's okay too. The only risk is the weather, and the birds. Late Harvest dessert wines have a subtle, light, dried fruit taste; think tangy apricot more than raisins.
Oremus Tokaji Furmint (so good), made in Hungary, well known for its dessert wines, is an outstanding Late Harvest Wine. If you're looking for value, Argentina's Santa Julia Tardio, based on the Torrontes grape, and is not to be missed.
The most dramatic method of making a dessert wine originated in, of all places, Germany. Instead of relying on the sun or botrytis to dry out the grapes, they let Old Man Winter do the work. At great risk, growers leave the grapes on the vine well into the November or December. As the sugar content increases, the temperature drops and the moisture freezes. When the perfect combination of brix (sugar level) and frost finally occurs, the grapes must be picked and pressed immediately, under the cold dark of night. That way, only the sweetest of juice, with its colder freezing point, will be used. Like Botryized wines, Icewine or Eiswein has a bracing acidity to balance out the almost syrupy richness, and it lasts for decades. Konzelmann Ice Wine from Canada is worth every penny.
Bonny Doon Muscat Vin Glaciere and Pellegrini's "Finale" use the same idea in making their ice wine, but in typical New World style, they rely on technology to drop the temperatures, and stick their grapes in the freezer.
Rather than wait for the grapes to ripen to high sugar levels, some wine makers decide to stop fermentation before the yeast eats up all the sugar. This is done by fortifying or adding a neutral spirit to kill off those magical organisms. The wine is then filtered and bottled. Not as long lived as the others, these wines are typically made with the Muscat or Moscato. Happily, the method preserves the fresh fruity style particular to that grape. Examples include the lovely Domaine De Durban Muscat from the Beaumes-de-Venise region of France, and the Yalumba Museum Muscat from Down Under.
Australians refer to their dessert wines as stickies, and wouldn't consider ending a meal with out one. They're on to something. Capture the last few days of summer with a Late Summer dessert and a sticky. Don't let the Aussies have all the fun.