Isn’t it funny how we jump to conclusions? I probably do it myself outside my comfort zone of the wine trade, but occasionally the public do seem to take a quantum leap of logic. If I buy a pair of blue trousers, say, that turns out to be uncomfortable, do I forever regard all blue trousers as poorly tailored? Of course not. Why then did the chap in the shop a couple of days ago glare at me in disgust when my recommendation of a particularly delicious, full rosé obviously failed to float his boat? He declared, “I’m certainly not having that, it’s dark and all dark rosés are sweet.” Well, the solitary example he had tried elsewhere might have been, but all ours are dry. “But it can’t be - it’s dark,” came his wildly wrong but unshakably convinced reply.
I wondered, as I selected a particularly rough section of brick wall against which to bang my head, if by employing the tailoring analogy combined with your man’s bizarre reasoning, he would accept a pair of green trousers of precisely the same size, style and cloth and find them suddenly and miraculously a perfect fit. Almost certainly, was the sad conclusion.
It occurred to me that the understanding of dessert wine is more likely than most to give rise to erroneous assumptions. It’s not just as simple as whether you have a sweet tooth or not; there are people who will launch into endless variants of gooey pudding with great relish, but will not countenance the appropriate wine to go with it. I am the other way around and cannot stand the vast majority of desserts. A sliver of sharp tarte au citron or something light and waspy made of gooseberries perhaps and rarely at that, but come at me with a bowl of banoffi pie, forged in the kitchens of hell itself and I promise you will end up wearing it. You don’t want to know where you’d find the spoon. However present me with a well-selected, exquisitely balanced sweet wine instead and I will be in raptures.
For many of us our first introduction to wine was something easy, unchallenging, probably sweetish….I can remember drinking Dad’s Mosel behind the garden shed when I thought he wasn’t looking. A junior job in the trade and a desire to learn more began to reveal what I’d been missing, but I remained guilty for two or three years of lumping all sweeties into the bracket of Beginners’ Stuff. Certainly I’d pulled away from the cheap, German pap of the 70’s but a little knowledge and a lot of inexperience had engendered a sort of snobbery.
I had jumped to the wrong conclusion and was clearly wide of the mark. One day somebody put a glass of top Sauternes in front of me - it was Ch. Suduiraut 1967 and I will never forget it - and my perspective cleared. Smitten in an instant, I was a changed man.
There are many regular wine drinkers who have not had the opportunity to taste beyond that initial slurp of rotten old Liebfraumilch and I do not blame any of them for feeling a kind of residual snobbery themselves, nor for not wishing to experiment any further. All we can do is try and convince you not to give up on sweeties until you have given a chance to at least a couple. You wouldn’t judge all red wine on the showing of a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, after all.
There is less room for forgiveness when assessing sweet wine. If you are on holiday in Europe and a carafe of rough, dry pink appears on the table you make allowances for the circumstances and get on with it. If your host at a barbecue produces a rustic red, it might actually be exactly what his burnt offerings need and deserve. If somebody serves you a less than decent sweetie you can’t touch it: there is nothing more disgusting than poor sweet wine and nothing more delicious than a really good one. The main deciding factor is balance. Sweet wine should not be sticky, it should not feel like sugar syrup in the mouth. Even at its richest it must have acidity to counter the sweetness and leave the palate fresh, if not actually cleansed. That is the skeleton upon which to hang the other contributions: is it full or light, strongly flavoured or mild, unctuous in texture, old and mellow or young and sprightly? Does it show the signature of noble rot? Does the character of the grape shine through? All these things matter in the whole complex recipe, but without acidity sweet wine is flat, mawkish and mouth-coating.
|Chocolate can be a challenge, but it's not impossible
It’s handy to get your food matching right too. If you are serving a sweetie with a dessert, you need to ensure that the wine is sweeter than the pud. There are few wines that can take on chocolate; the ones that match work by countering the natural bitterness of high-grade, dark, not especially sweet speciality choc. White chocolate puds are sickly and, frankly, universally horrid. If you insist, don’t bother drinking anything with it as you will waste your wine. If you still have room for such a vile confection at that stage of the meal, it means that you haven’t eaten enough of the sensible food before it! Puds with variations of caramelized fruit like an apple tarte tatin are ideal, as are creams and custards. Crème Brulée is perfect with Sauternes or Monbazillac. Fruit-and-meringue offers a great excuse for a lighter, zestier style of sweetie.
There’s no need to restrict sweet wines just to desserts. There is an honourable French tradition of drinking such wines with rich, smooth pâtés, classically foie gras, but a chicken liver parfait is super. Try one with blue cheese - it’s the perfect foil for the salty character of Roquefort, Saint-Agur or even Stilton. An agreeable way of tailing off dinner is with a basket of fresh nuts to crack and a glass of something sweet - Madeira is a delicious retro option.
We have plenty to offer across a wide range of styles, familiar and unusual, old and modern, if you want to give one a try and have increased the selection with some new faces earlier this year. These can never be cheap wines and you should always treat apparently bespoke, but evidently inexpensive dessert wines with considerable suspicion. The yields are necessarily tiny, picking is extremely perfectionist - sometimes one shriveled berry at a time and, with harvests essentially late, there is always the risk of deteriorating autumn weather affecting the crop.
If this is a treat that toots your flute, peruse our selection here where you will also find details of which foods work best with these delicious wines. As ever, feel free to call us for any advice.