Sweet Thoughts for Valentine's Day (February 8, 2008)
As wine lovers, we begin our affair with sweet wines (think about the very first glass you ever tasted. Baby Duck? Mateus Rose? Manischewitz?). As our tastes become more sophisticated, we "dry out," preferring more savoury flavours. But we never quite lose the yen for sweet wines.
This sweet-sour ambivalence plays out dramatically at the dinner table whether to serve the cheese course before or after dessert. In this debate I come down firmly on the "after" side.
The French wheel in the cheese trolley after they'd had their dessert; but then they will begin the meal with a glass of ruby port as an aperitif. This is not a good idea. Do not try this at home. A sweet wine before a meal will dull your appetite, while a dry wine Brut champagne, fino sherry, Sercial Madeira, Chablis, dry Riesling, etc. stimulates the appetite.
Try this experiment for yourself. Take a glass of dry white wine and give it a succession of little sniffs. Pay attention to what is happening in your mouth while you're sniffing. Involuntarily, you will start to salivate. The citrus and tartaric acids in the wine will stimulate your saliva glands which begin to secrete saliva. This will make you feel hungry. A sweet wine taken before a meal will dampen your appetite.
When it comes to the "cheese versus dessert" debate, the reason why I opt for cheese before something sweet is because the flavours of the preceding course (meat or fish) are invariably savoury, so there is a more natural taste transition to tuck into a selection of cheeses. Added to this is the possibility of finishing off the wine you served to complement the main course with the cheese. And this progression will allow you to serve a dessert wine without moving back to a dry wine for cheese (unless, of course, you're offering a blue cheese like Stilton or Roquefort, which cries out for port.).
The trick in matching wines with dessert is that the wine has to be sweeter than the dessert. The most successful pairings usually involve fruit of some kind (except for grapes: serving grapes with wine is somehow incestuous, or as one gastronome put it, "I don't take my wine in pill form"). Pears, apples, berries are ideal accompaniments to sweet wines because of their acidity and low level of sweetness. Chocolate, meringue and caramel are more difficult but not impossible to marry with wines. If the dessert is sweeter than the wine it will emphasize the wine's acidity and make it taste sharp.
So what constitutes a dessert wine? Sweetness by itself is not necessarily a virtue if the wine is not in balance; otherwise you could fill your glass with honey. The world's great dessert wines Sauternes (think Château d'Yquem), Tokaji Escenzia from Hungary, German Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese and Ontario Icewine all have high acidity to carry the residual sugar and cleanse the palate.
There are basically two styles of dessert wines those that are fortified with brandy (port, sherry, Bual and Malmsey (two sweeter styles of Madeira) and Banyuls, a sweet red wine from the French Pyrenees) and unfortified sweet wines that are late harvested or left to freeze on the vine. The addition of brandy during the fermentation process kills the yeast that converts grape sugars into alcohol, thus leaving amounts of residual sugar in the wine.
Fortified dessert wines, because of their power, can go with virtually any dessert you want, including chocolate.
Unfortified dessert wines, like Sauternes, Barsac, Late Harvest Riesling and Icewines, are more delicate and require desserts with good acidity, such a pear flan, tarte tartin, apple strudel and the like.
Purchase these wines in half bottles if available, because you only need a two-ounce pour, which makes six glasses per half bottle. Fortified wines, such as tawny port, cream sherry and the sweeter Madeiras, once opened will last a lot longer than unfortified wines or vintage port because they are already oxidized. And chill them well. Except, of course, Vintage Port.
And then of course there is a time to serve dessert wines without dessert. As I mentioned earlier, sweet wines have a dampening effect on appetite. So if you have a horde of people descend on you and you have nothing in the larder or fridge to offer them, serve them a sweet wine.