Dessert Wine? Sure, But Let’s Skip the Dessert

You’ve heard the so-called cardinal rule about dessert wine: “The wine should be sweeter than the dessert.”

That’s fine, but do we always have to pair sweet wine with sweet food?

Cheese plate

No way, say a growing number of dessert-wine producers–who, by the way, have convinced me that a plate of lip-smackin’ salty cheeses and cured meats can be a terrific light dinner, especially paired with a fine Sauternes from the Graves region of Bordeaux.

So, the question for wine lovers is, do we want our pairings to match or contrast? For eons, it seems, dessert wines have been served with dessert so they could match the food. But the new thinking is, if we plan our wine pairing to contrast with the food, the wine can fill in and enhance flavors we can’t taste in the dish. Instead of pairing our chocolate mousse with Madeira, let’s try some spicy salami with Sauternes.

I did just that, and was surprised at how the meat tamed the sweetness of the wine, and the Sauternes gave the salami a depth and richness it didn’t have otherwise. So I conducted further research (i.e., eating savory foods and drinking dessert wines, guided by the experts at Snooth.com) and came up with five sweet-and-savory points for your next dinner party:

  • “Dessert wines are not meant to be paired with desserts,” one expert wrote on Wine-logic.com. “They are meant to be desserts all on their own.” On my palate, sweet anything goes down better after the meal is finished and the dishes have been cleared away. I like to serve dessert wine after dinner, with a cheese course.
  • Unlike most fortified wines (think Port or Sherry), white dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are relatively low-alcohol. Still, their intense flavors and aromas might surprise you. Serve them in small glasses and take small sips.
  • Experiment before you serve dessert wines to your guests, because they won’t expect the savory pairing. Order some spicy takeout, maybe Thai or curry, and try a few dessert wines with the food. Go creamy, briny, fried, salty, hot, sour. Try any savory cheeses, deli meats or even spiced nuts that you think might work. If you don’t like it, don’t serve it.
  • Salty foods can make a sweet wine taste sweeter, but they might clash with high-alcohol fortified wine, giving it a bitter taste. But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The taste might appeal to you.
  • If you choose a Sauternes, which is my favorite dessert wine, try pairing it with foie gras. The wine will taste less sweet and the foie gras will seem less fatty.

If “dessert wine” to you means Port, here’s a tip for pairing it with cheeses: Port is actually a “fortified” wine. Brandy is added during fermentation to boost its alcohol level, and styles of Port can range from slightly sweet to cloying. Keep that in mind for serving it with a cheese course, and try the various styles–ruby, LBV, Vintage, tawny–with different cheeses. The Ports won’t all taste the same, just as some of the cheeses will taste smokier, saltier, or richer than others.

The only rule is, don’t be intimidated by pairing dessert wines with savory foods. There’s no wrong way to do it! Have fun, take some notes, and surprise your guests with a new taste adventure!

Wine Lingo:  Botrytis (“bot-try-tis”) cinerea, or “noble rot” = what happens to grapes when morning mists are followed by warm, dry afternoons. These are perfect conditions for a fungus to flourish, but then the vines dry out in the afternoon, preventing the fruit from totally rotting. Over the summer, the grapes dry even more, reducing their water content as the sugars and flavors become concentrated in the shriveled-up grape. The grapes look spoiled, but in fact they are golden for producers of quality dessert wines; that’s how the wines get their intense flavors and sweetness.

Sauternes med

Vino ‘View:  Castelnau du Suduiraut Sauternes 2006, 375ml/half bottle (14 percent alcohol, $20). I tasted this wine with several friends, and one declared before the glass reached her nose, “Wow–the apple aroma knocks you over!” This light-bodied Sauternes is as fruit-forward as wine gets, with strong banana and apricot aromas, followed by cantaloupe, pears and peach brandy tastes and medium acidity. As the wine sat on my tongue, I also detected green tea, cinnamon, white grapes and a hint of licorice. This is really a delightfully complex sipper, not terribly sweet, a great way to end a meal. Sauternes, by the way, is usually a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel.

Cheers!

Mary

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The Art of Wine Tasting

If you’re going to learn about wine, you have to know how to taste it. That doesn’t mean tossing back a big gulp of vino and deciding whether you like it; there are steps and dimensions to tasting, and they get pretty involved. Tasting correctly has nothing to do with whether you enjoy a particular wine; it’s your vehicle for describing the wine to others – and one of the best places to appreciate that process is The Winemakers Studio in Livermore Valley, California, part of the iconic Wente Vineyards.

I was there with other bloggers attending the Wine Bloggers Conference in August, and we got an up-close look at “all the critical decision points a winemaker goes through every day,” our guide told us.

One of the most important aspects of tasting wine is detecting its various smells. Our first session was the Wine Aroma Experience, pictured above, where we took whiffs of pure essences that could have been any fruit, bark, seed, nut, vegetable or spice, and tried to match them with the actual samples on the table. The idea was to “reach back into our memories and bring back experiences” we associate with those smells. Fruits and spices are easiest for me, but spices always trip me up.

Our next stop was Wine & Food Pairing, with a twist: instead of pairing foods with two different wines, we sipped two vintages of the same wine – a 2014 and 2015 Semillon by Cuda Ridge Wines. I’d never tried pairing foods with different vintages of the same wine before, and was surprised at how they influenced the foods differently.

Pairing photo

For starters, the wines looked different – the 2014 was watery-white, while the 2015 had more of a corn-silk hue. Tasting both with crab salad, the 2015’s minerality came through much more than the older wine, which was more mellow with a strong pear taste. With the brie, the 2014 was predictably richer and “bigger” than the 2015, which was noticeably more tart, cutting into the creamy brie taste.

We went on to “Size & Shape Matters,” a session showing how a glass can influence the aroma and taste of the wine. I’ve written on this (and probably will do a blog post on glasses at some point), so I knew the wine in the crystal Riedel glass would taste much smoother and more expensive than the same wine in what the instructor called the “Outback Steakhouse glass.”

Our last class was a blind tasting. Wine was poured into two black glasses – one white wine, one red – and we had to guess which of four varietals each wine was. The answers were Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon; I missed both because I didn’t think they would give us such obvious choices. I was wrong!

Classes at The Winemakers Studio are open to the public, but you have to book in advance at 925-456-2385. You can take one class or all four, or a special wine blending workshop. Our sessions were abbreviated; plan on one to two hours per class, and have fun with it!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fruit-forward = A wine is said to be fruit-forward when tastes of fruit dominate over all other tastes, such as oak, spices or smoke. Some use the term “fruit-driven.” The fruity taste will be most noticeable towards the front of your mouth.

Mark West Black, small

Vino ‘View: As summer ends, I’m not quite ready for the bold Cabs and Zins that I love, but I get a hankering for something red. The perfect compromise is 2014 Mark West Black Pinot Noir (13.5% alcohol, $13.99). The color is a dark wine-red – I once had a skirt that color; we called it “burgundy.” The wine is full-bodied for a Pinot, and I feel some heat as it goes down, though the alcohol level isn’t high. Aromas of smoke, dry leaves and blackberries remind me that fall is almost here, and the taste has a lot of layers – it’s fruit-forward with black raspberry flavor, then dark chocolate, black walnuts, black olives, smoke, and a slight peppery note emerge. There is, as they say, a lot going on in that glass.

Enjoy your holiday!

Mary

[Bottle shot courtesy of Mark West Wines. This bottle was sent by the producer to be reviewed.]

 

 

 

Chardonnay Gets Its Day!

You either love Chardonnay, or you can’t stand it. If you’re a fan, May 21 (or 23, depending on whose calendar you follow) is National Chardonnay Day, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this iconic white.

Chardonnay

The green-skinned grape comes to us from the Burgundy region of France (if you’re drinking “white Burgundy,” you’re drinking Chardonnay). The Wente family brought cuttings to their Livermore Valley vineyards early in the last century, and their 1936 vintage was the first varietal labeled in the US.

Chardonnay is a neutral grape – meaning, it takes on flavors of the terroir where it’s grown and from other influences, such as oak. That makes it adaptable to just about every winegrowing region in the world, with distinctive tastes and aromas no matter where it’s grown: in Burgundy it’s known for its lively minerality, thanks to the abundance of  Kimmeridgian limestone in the soil. In Austria, where recordings of gun blasts are played in the vineyards to scare away the birds, it’s made into sweet wines. In California and Argentina, Chardonnay is likely to be toasty and oaky, often with tropical fruit flavors coming through. Some Spanish winemakers use it in making Cava, Spain’s classic sparkling wine. And if you like your bubbly, you’ll want to know that Chardonnay is one of three grapes (and the only white) used in making Champagne.

In France alone, vineyard owners grow some 34 clonal varieties, all developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon. Why? So they can plant the specific “Dijon clone” that will perform best in their vineyards, and will produce exactly the traits they want in their wines. It’s a complicated business, and the outcomes range from unoaked, minerality-packed Chablis to full, toasty Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s France’s second-most planted grape, just behind Ugni Blanc (often known as Trebbiano), the key grape in making Cognac, and ahead of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you want to throw an impromptu Chardonnay Day dinner, have fun with it and buy a variety of bottles from different regions and in different styles (oaked, unoaked). Keep some basic pairing tips in mind: Chardonnay pairs well with roast chicken and other white meats. If one of your bottles is an older, more earthy Chardonnay, pour it with an earthy dish such as mushroom soup or winter squash. A lightly oaked Chardonnay will pair well with grilled trout or Lobster Thermador, but not a delicate fish dish.

And next week, we’ll celebrate Chardonnay’s (and California Cab’s) finest hour, on the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Blanc de blanc = Champagnes made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo by Megan Cole, courtesy of Flickr.com]