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Dessert Wines

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Dessert wines can be broken down into several categories:

4a) Port and port-style wines
4b) Sherries
4c) Sauternes, Barsac, and late-harvest wines

Port is from Portugal. Port-style wines (which can be absolutely delicious in their own right) are from somewhere that isn't Portugal. Port comes in several different styles:

Ruby--This is the simplest, and least expensive, style. It is often quite tasty, but stick with the major names which will be listed below. Ruby Port is a dark purplish color, quite sweet, with plummy, raisiny flavors.

Tawny--I would avoid this. It is generally a mixture of the worst of the Ruby lots with a perversion of nature called White Port. Try it if you must, but it cannot hold a candle to real aged Tawny.

Aged Tawny--This is the real thing in Tawny Port. These are Ports which have spent a long time in wooden barrels. They are blends of the produce of several years harvests, so the ages you see listed on the bottles (10-year, 20-year, 30-year, 40-year) are averages or approximations of the age of the blend (some parts of the blend being younger and some being much older than the listed age on the label). These ports have a wonderful nutty character and an orange-brown/golden/brown color acquired during the long wood aging. These are some of the best dessert wines in the world. These wines will run from about $20 for the 10-year-old to about $100 for the 40-year-old.

Vintage Character--This is basically a marketing gimmick designed to associate slightly above-average Ruby Ports with the reputation of the much greater Vintage Ports. These are good Ports, and well worth the $10-$15 per bottle, but do not confuse them with Vintage Ports.

Late-Bottled Vintage--These are wines from a single year's vintage which have been wood-aged for four to six years before bottling. There is a trick to watch out for when buying one of these wines. There are two styles: one, called "traditional" LBV, collects a sediment at the bottom of the bottle, and so must be decanted and filtered (through a coffee filter or a layer of cheesecloth) before drinking. These are very good quality wines (though not so good as Vintage Ports), and well worth the $18-$25 you might pay for them. The second, more common, style does not collect this sediment, making it easier to pour and serve straight from the bottle (this is the sort you will generally find in restaurants). These wines, however, are generally of a lower quality than the "traditional" LBVs, often no better than a Ruby or Vintage Character Port, but the price is the same as the "traditional" LBV. Buyer Beware.

Vintage Port--This is the Emperor of Port and the King of Dessert wines. Vintage Port is wine from a single year, blended and bottled after two to three years of wood-aging. Thus, a 1994 vintage (the most recently released vintage and one of the hottest in years) is released in the last half of 1996. These wines are nowhere near ready to drink when they are released. Hold on to them for at least 10, and preferably 15-25 years after their vintage dates. If you wait (or are lucky enough to drink from a bottle for which someone else has waited), you will taste the best the known universe has to offer: a sweet, yet richly smooth, warm, and perfumed glass of wine overflowing with plummy, raisiny flavors with hints of chocolate and spice. On release, these wines run from $30-$40, but they become much more expensive as the years go by. A 1977 Warre is running about $100, while a 1970 Taylor is well over $100. Get them young and wait--you'll thank yourself later.

The producers to watch for in Port include:

Taylor Fladgate
Quinto do Noval

If you are curious to try some Port-style wines, try the Yalumba Clocktower Port (about $10), or the Yalumba Galway Pipe Port (about $20) from Australia. Ficklin, a California winery, produces a Port-style wine which is also a good drink (about $11). Avoid like the plague anything with a screwtop.

Sherries (which come from the Xerez region of Spain--anything not from Spain is not true Sherry) are the bargains of the dessert wine world. A top quality Cream Sherry from a producer such as Emilio Lustau will run about $12-$20. Sherries, of course, also come in non-dessert forms; Fino is pale and bone-dry, and makes an excellent accompaniment to seafood; Oloroso is dark like Cream (Cream sherries are blends of Oloroso and extremely sweet Pedro Ximinez [pronounced him-in-ez] sherries), but it is dry and tangy and goes wonderfully with a rich soup or even a roast of beef. All of these wines are relatively inexpensive and well worth some experimentation. Again, avoid screwtops.

Sauternes and Barsac are French wines made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. These wines are of a rich golden color and have a surprisingly rich honeyed sweetness. They acquire these characteristics in large part due to something called noble rot (no, you're not drinking something that should have gone out with those green beans from Thanksgiving!). Noble rot is caused by a fungus called Botrytis; this fungus feeds on the water in the grapes, leaving behind the sugar. This concentrates both the flavors and the sweetness of the now-shriveled grapes, and the wine made from these grapes is of a much more concentrated flavor than it could have been without the friendly fungus. Sauternes and Barsac wines are named after the region in which they are grown; as a general rule, Sauternes wines are heavier and Barsac wines are a little lighter. Beware, though, these wines are expensive. A good quality wine from either of these regions will run a minimum of $25-$35. The higher end of the spectrum will run into the hundreds of dollars. The most famous Sauternes is something called Yquem (by Chateau Yquem); it is the kind of wine that is generally kept behind bars in a display case, in case some well-read but under-funded wine-lover were to decide to grab it and make a dash! A recent Yquem will go for about $200-$250.

American late-harvest wines are much less expensive, but the best of them are still quite wonderful. The Bonny Doon winery in California makes a wine it calls Muscat Canelli Vin de Glaciere (wine of the icebox, essentially) which achieves the concentration levels of noble rot by freezing the grapes, then pressing them immediately so that only the sugary liquid--which has a lower freezing point than water--will run from the press). This wine sells for about $15 for a half bottle (375ml). It is an amazingly concentrated nectar-like wine. Try it.