This article is mentioned in the Beverage & Spirits column (page 12) in the September/October 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.
In the old days, Champagne was seen as a dessert wine. It used to be sweetened. Today's Champagnes are relatively dry (not sweet). But we have many other kinds of wine to have with, or for, dessert. When wine is very sweet, you don't really want to drink a lot of it at one time. That's why you'll see most dessert wines sold in the smaller half bottles.
Bordeaux, France's legendary dessert wine, Château d'Yquem Sauternes, is the gold standard--and will cost you lots of gold. Chateau d'Yquem is so good that it stands alone, classified "Grand Premier Cru" (first great growth), and it costs hundreds of dollars a bottle. Using Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes that have undergone a process called botrytis or "noble rot," Sauternes' grapes "rot" beautifully. Sauternes from lesser French chateaux (wineries) are much less expensive.
Other places produce excellent botrytis-affected wine. Tokaji from Hungary and Germany's delicious, but difficult to pronounce, Trockenbeerenauslese and Beerenauslese Riesling wines (the longer the word the greater the sweetness--and the cost) are the most famous, but California also produces small quantities. Try the truly marvelous Chalk Hill Botrytised Semillon 2006, which, while pricey, is an affordable splurge (that you can pronounce). This luscious wine, with apricot, mango and caramel flavors and a long finish, is perfect alone or with cream-based pastries and crème brûlée.
Hungary is justifiably famous for its Tokaji; for an introduction to these wonderful wines, try the Royal Tokaji Ats Cuvee Late Harvest 2007, which is reasonably priced and absolutely delicious. Chill this lemony, honey-flavored wine, and serve with hors d'oeuvres or winter fruit pies.
Of course, not all sweet wines need to be served for dessert. Ice wines, late-harvest wines and Ports vary in sweetness, and some can be great pairings for savory dishes, too. Many dessert wines are perfect accompaniments to such ultra-rich preps as foie gras, pâtés, terrines and sweetbreads, as well as desserts.
California's Prix (Hagafen) Winery Late Harvest Chardonnay 2006 is an unusual sweet treat that is perfect with mandel bread, honey cake and biscotti. Michigan's Chateau Chantal Late Harvest Riesling is a natural with either spicy Asian preps or citrus-based desserts.
Ice wine, another popular style of dessert wine, is produced by leaving the grapes on the vine until they freeze. The combination of overripe grapes with the concentration resulting from removing the excess water through freezing produces a sweet, intense wine. New York, Washington, Michigan and other states produce wonderful ice wines. Try Washington's Covey Run Reserve Semillon Ice Wine 2005. For something really different, try an ice wine cocktail: Mix three parts chilled wine with one part chilled raspberry liqueur, topped with a lemon twist. Canada is also famous for its pricey and delicious ice wines, but for an unusual quaff, try Neige Apple Ice Wine with a baked apple, hot apple pie or a cheese plate, especially blue cheese.
Wineries in New York's Finger Lakes produce ice wines from unusual American grapes like Vignoles and Vidal Blanc. Try pineapple-flavored Wagner Vignoles Ice Wine 2007 with cheesecake. Hunt Country Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2006 and Lamoreaux Landing Vidal Ice Wine 2007 are affordable treats to pair with rich, creamy cheeses like Roquefort and Stilton. Sheldrake Point Riesling Ice Wine pairs beautifully with bread pudding or flan.
Portugal is the birthplace of port (labeled "Porto" when it's from Portugal), a traditional dessert wine. Vintage port is pricey, but most Tawny Ports are less expensive. Tawny Port is delicious with nut-based desserts, because the flavors of the port bring out the nuttiness and stand up to dense- textured desserts. A glass of Tawny is a wonderful partner for milk chocolate puddings and pies, and they also work well with salty, pungent cheeses. Try Warres Otima 10 Year Old Tawny Porto or Smith Woodhouse 10 Year Old Tawny.
California has a number of wineries that make port, and an unusual take is Prager Winery and Port Works Chardonnay Aria White Port 2005. It's a gold-colored, complex, semi-sweet wine with flavors of apple, pear and orange, and it is great with cream soups, cheeses and oyster and crab preparations. Fenestra Winery Port 2003 uses traditional Portuguese grapes--Touriga, Tinto Cão and Souzão. This is a luscious wine, rich, smooth, elegant and mature. Pair this wine with Stilton, Roquefort, nuts and chocolate. It even kicks up grandma's fruitcake!
Oh, about the title, "stickies?" That comes from the Australian expression for sweet wine—which is loaded with sugar and if you spill it, well, you know! Try Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat for a sweet, sticky treat from down under.