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After-Dinner Treats
Little-Known Dessert Wines of the World
Considering America’s infamous sweet tooth, it is surprising how many of the world’s dessert wines have fallen into obscurity. Most wine-producing countries have sweet gems that remain mysterious to an entire generation of wine-lovers.
A glass of rich red Port A glass of rich red Port.
The satisfaction of relaxing after a meal with a digestif is steeped in history and tradition. Long ago, it was deemed medically necessary to have a small morsel after a big meal. In some cultures, the morsel was cheese; in others, it was something sweet, like fruit or a confection. Although science eventually disproved the theory, the tradition continued, giving families and friends extra time to enjoy each other’s company and extend the pleasure of eating. Decadent dessert wines are the perfect cap to an evening’s end.

Dessert wines are made in almost every wine-growing region of France. Vin doux naturel, a fortified wine, is made in the southern Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon regions using a process called mutage, which stops fermentation with the addition of neutral grape spirits. This results in strong, rich and engaging wines replete with residual sugar. White versions are made with the Muscat grape, while Grenache is largely responsible for the red. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, the oldest and finest variety of Muscat, is employed in the production of the Rhône’s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. This fragrant wine is hailed for its pale gold color and delicate yet luxurious flavors of orange and spice. The appellations of Banyuls and Maury in Roussillon use the Grenache grape to make wines of exceptional depth and flavor that age extremely well. Rasteau makes a vin doux naturel from Grenache. Wines labeled as Rasteau Rancio have been exposed to oxygen and/or heat, creating a Madeira-like effect with flavors reminiscent of candied and dried fruit.

Italy’s dessert wine traditions date to antiquity, and passito is the name given to the dried-grape wines made here. The harvested grapes are spread out to dry, traditionally on straw mats, with the goal of evaporating most of the water in the fruit, thus concentrating grape sugars. The resulting wines are rich, complex and sweet. Red grapes are used for Umbria’s Sagrantino Passito and Veneto’s Recioto della Valpolicella, while whites are used for Tuscany’s Vin Santo, Friuli’s Picolit, and Recioto di Soave from Veneto. Classically made Recioto della Valpolicella and Vin Santo are produced in an oxidative style that increases complexity and depth in the finished wine. Picolit and Recioto di Soave are lighter in style with an accent on delicate fruit aromas and a buoyant sweetness.

The Achaia region of Greece, on the northern coast of the Peloponnesus, is home to the aromatic Mavrodaphne of Pátras. This fortified wine is somewhat similar to Port, with a slightly oxidized character. Mavrodaphne, also the name of the grape, means “black laurel” and is a red, dark-skinned variety. The wine was invented by a man named Gustav Clauss in the 19th century, and is traditionally served as an aperitif with fruit or an almond biscuit.

On the Island of Cyprus, a wine called Commandaria has been treasured for centuries. Made of partially raisined Mavro (red) and Xynisteri (white) grapes in a strictly defined production area of just 14 villages, it is meant to be drunk in the spring after bottling and is prized for its honey-raisin flavor.

Virtually every other winemaking country has a dessert wine to call its own. Austria is famed for its Ausbruch. Spain makes late-harvest Monastrell, Malaga and PX. Australian “stickies” include Muscats and Tokays.

When pairing these wines with confectionary, it is important that the wine be sweeter than the food, otherwise unpleasant flavors may develop on the palate. Fruit desserts tend to pair best with fruity wines, while those with chocolate or caramel are terrific with oxidized wines. However, the best pairing of all may just be a full stomach and time to relax.

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