With yet another Thanksgiving, Hanuka, Christmas and so forth soon to come, the question is, should you gorge away at the big dinner or discreetly desist a bit to “make sure,” as some say, “that there’s still some room left for dessert”?
My advice: Overindulge if you must (it doesn’t happen every day, after all), but instead of pie, tart, cake, mousse or whatever, end the feast with a glass of good dessert wine. It’s delightful, it’s really good, and your choice of good ones is fairly wide.
Dessert wines are also referred to as sweet wines and, among the British, as pudding wines, since in Britain they are traditionally enjoyed after a meal. Conversely, in France they may be drunk as aperitifs before a meal, well chilled.
Here a word about “sweet” as it is used in “sweet wines.” What it doesn’t refer to is the cliche of a sweet wine with the cloying sweetness favored by very young children (e.g., lollipops, sweet drinks, bubble gum.) Well-made dessert wines have an elegant, sophisticated sweetness, sometimes rapturous, resulting from vinifying only hand-picked, late-harvest grapes blessed by days of additional sunshine.
Classics among the world’s great sweet wines include Sauternes (from Sauternes in the Gironde, France), Tokay (from Tokaji in Hungary) and various German and Austrian versions. Note the exquisite creations of Austria’s celebrated Alois Kracher and Willi Opitz, two of Austria’s many excellent winemakers whose wines are sold Japan (details from the Austrian Embassy).
Some other countries also produce dessert wines of varying distinction. Australia makes worthy versions of dessert wine in the Sauternes style and other superb sweet wines such as the exquisite Brown Brothers Muscat. California has some good ones, too (note Renaissance).
None, though, has achieved the recognition of Sauternes, Tokay and the best of Germany and Austria. Great dessert wines like these aren’t cheap, but they can prove economical despite their often very high cost per bottle.
Economical? Consider that high-quality dessert wines are so rich that a 750-ml bottle can provide dessert for a dozen people. Of course, if you pay 3,000 yen or more for a 500-ml bottle — that can add up.
I’ve found that not only Roquefort, the classic end-of-meal mate of Sauternes, but also certain other blue-family cheeses go fairly well with chilled Sauternes because the cheeses’ acidity and the wine’s luscious sweetness are so compatible. (Before a dinner try Sauternes with foie gras, another classic wine marriage.)
Briefly, let’s explore Sauternes, the king of the world’s dessert wines and the most expensive. Sauternes are made in the Sauternes region of France within the southern part of Graves, about 50 km from Bordeaux, using blends of semillon (a major Bordeaux white grape), sauvignon blanc (tangy) and, at times, muscadelle (dry and acidic).
For use in Sauternes the semillon grapes are picked very late when their natural sugar level is very high, and they are covered by the mold Botrytis cinerea (called “la pourriture noble” — “noble rot”). Crops are extremely small in this costly process, hence the high price of this unique sweet wine. (The sauvignon blanc grapes are harvested before noble rot affects them.)
Noble rot does not unfailingly appear. Being fickle, it requires foggy mornings and sunshine toward noon. Given these factors, it makes the grapes shrivel and become a ghastly goo: sticky, brownish and hardly like anything consumable. But it’s at this point that the grapes are gathered, their water nearly evaporated, their natural sugar highly concentrated. Those good enough for Sauternes are few. This adds to the cost.
In France, even quite dry semillon tends to be soft, rich and yellow, with rather low acidity and pungent, luscious sweetness. Since semillon’s flavor tends to be gentle, often it is picked up by adding sauvignon blanc, with its aroma, finesse and tangy, more assertive character. This applies as well to blends of the two, apart from Sauternes.
Renowned among Sauternes is Chateau d’Yquem, one of the world’s most famous vineyards. Other chateaux among the many of note are, alphabetically, Caillou, Filhot Lafaurie-Peyraguey, La Tour-Blanche, Rayne-Vigneau and Sigalas-Rabaud. In addition to the Sauternes region, some Sauternes are also produced in Bommes, a sub-district.
Besides Roquefort, as a mate for Sauternes consider such cheeses as Cheshire, edam, parmesan, smoked cheeses, Wensleydale and red Leicester, a relative old-timer among Japan’s cheese imports. Those who simply must have apple pie will find that it, too, goes with Sauternes, as do peaches and strawberries, among other desserts. Or simply have Sauternes as dessert.
Remember that thanks to wine you can also pour a great dessert, and that well-chosen wines make great gifts.
Enjoy a glorious holiday season, and don’t let yourself run dry.