The Wine Whisperer: What makes for a good dessert wine?

The other day I wandered down to the shop and ran into a "wine and dine" group looking for dessert wines. This group decided to do a late, after-dinner extravaganza starting at 9 p.m., in which the group members brought their favorite sweet wines to the event. They were looking for guidance on where to go with sweet wines and what desserts would do well with them. Here are some of the things I advised them to do:

Rieslings — One of the problems with organizing a dessert party is that the sugars very quickly can become overwhelming. The trick is to find a balance between sugars and acids. Acids will carry the day with sweet wine, as these are the quenchers of the palate. There is really nothing worse than having, for example, a heavy chocolate dessert with a "sticky" wine that just intensifies the sugar levels.

Try to stick with German spatlese-level Rieslings, which have some sugar but display good acids. These wines can carry through the sugar and freshen the palate. Also, stick with the German Rieslings because the alcohol levels are moderate to low. High alcohol levels interfere with many kinds of fruit, especially tropical fruit, and can make the freshness of mango or pineapple (for example) be pounded by the heat of the alcohol. What we are looking for is a balance of good fruit flavors and alcohol as well as acidity. German Rieslings are just the ticket. Try to serve the Rieslings cold, but not icy, because the colder these delicate wines get, the less flavors you will receive.

Extreme cold as well as high alcohol can diminish flavors in delicate wine offerings and make a wonderfully made wine struggle for its elegance. Do the best you can to find all of the flavor components in well-made dessert wines by keeping them cool to the touch, not over-chilled. I cannot tell you how many wine tastings I have attended where the sweeter wines were diminished by over-chilling.

Muscats — Heavy, cream desserts need to have a wine that will cut through the cream and compliment the dish. Cream-based dishes call for Muscat-based wines, as these wines are filled with the taste of freshly picked grapes and are also weighty on the palate — just the thing for heavy, whipped cream. Whipped creamed eclairs, strawberries or other darker berries demand a wine with grip on the palate to slick the cream away and Muscats do the trick.

Muscats come in a variety of lovely styles. The Early Muscats are generally dry but still offer a fresh-squeezed grape nose and can be good, for example, with a variety of cheese and fruit. The other Muscats, such as Muscat Alexandria, Muscat Amabile or Muscat Canelli, are varied, but share the same explosion of freshly crushed grapes and palate density. The Moscato from Italy come in a slightly sparkling version called Moscato d' Asti and are spectacular after-dinner wines, offering low alcohol and terrific hints of pear and tropical flavors. Just about everyone knows the Asti Spumante sparklers as they are also sparkling wines but overall are of less quality than the Moscato d'Asti and far more sparkling.

Ports — Port folks are crazy about Port! Traditionally, Port comes from Porto, Portugal, but in today's world we are seeing very good Port coming from the United States and Australia. Port wines are the big daddies of the sweet red world and come in a variety of styles and flavors. Ports are terrific with blue cheese, sharp cheddars and lighter sugary treats, as well as apples, pears and unsalted nuts. (Never use salted nuts or salty desserts with sweet wines as they strip the wines of nuance and make them flat and uninspired.)

Ports are to be served cellar temperature and those with some age should be decanted before serving. Ports have the lovely distinction of being able to be opened then set aside for another day as the sugar levels and alcohol levels are sufficient in keeping the microbes at bay for more than a few weeks. Ruby Port is, generally speaking, sweeter and heavier on the palate, while the Tawny's are warmer and less juicy, although I have seen exceptions to this over the years.

There are many more dessert wines in the world that I will write about from time to time, but the Rieslings, Muscats and Ports seem to be very accessible and come in a variety of price levels for every pocket book. I hope that answered a few of your questions! Until next week.

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