THE WINE GUY: Sweet wines for your happy holidays
Something about the cold weather and holidays always gets me in the mood for a good dessert wine. I’ve discovered a few that I am looking forward to helping me get through the holidays and the rest of winter.
Although I enjoy Port all year long, there is something about cold weather that gets me thinking about stocking up on this special dessert wine from Portugal’s Douro River Valley. The warming quality of Port’s intensity and high alcohol really hits the spot this time of year.
There are many styles and a number of special designations but the wines are so good, the little extra effort it takes to understand them will be greatly rewarded. Actually, there are two basic styles: mostly wood-aged Port, usually classified as Tawny; and mostly bottle-aged Port, including Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and Ruby.
Vintage Port is made only in exceptional years from the finest grapes in the top vineyards. They are dark, with intense fruit, great depth, and tannic grip. They also are quite expensive.
Since I can’t afford Vintage Port often, one of my favorite alternatives is made by Ficklin Vineyards, a family operation that has been producing highly regarded California Port-style wines for three generations. The 1996 Ficklin Vintage Port ($36), though less intense than the Portuguese version, still is impressively rich and ready to enjoy immediately but will develop well.
Late Bottled Vintage Port (or LBV) also is an affordable alternative. It is made from good wines of a single year that didn’t quite make the cut for Vintage Port. Aged four to six years before bottling, it is ready to drink upon release but can last a few years.
I enjoyed Dow’s 2007 LBV ($22), from the family’s fourth winemaking generation, for its full body and blackberry fruit balanced with good acidity and soft tannins.
Ruby Port is the youngest and most accessible Port. Aged three years in large vats to retain freshness, expect straightforward, grapey fruit.
Cockburn’s “Special Reserve” ($22), crafted to be more concentrated than a standard Ruby by this 200 year old producer, is a delectable choice with aromas of ripe plums and dark cherries and concentrated flavors to match. Fonseca Bin No. 27 ($21), from another nearly 200-year-old family winery, is quite intense with lively red fruits and good structure. Here again, Ficklin is a California alternative worth considering. I have been drinking the Old Vine Tinta Port ($18), which is produced using a unique solera blending system, for more than 30 years and it has never disappointed me.
Tawny Port is known less for power and concentration than for complexity, purity of fruit and finesse. Tawnies are blended wines and the best indicate an average age. Expect the balance, elegance and complexity to increase with the older wines.
The Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old ($56) is amazingly pure with vibrant, deep fruit, nutty complexity and great balance. The Fonseca 10 Year Old ($33) is quite fine in its own right and certainly more affordable, though a little sharper and not as complex. And don’t forget Ficklin’s Aged 10 Years ($28), which I enjoyed for its attractive plum and cinnamon and lingering finish.
Some California producers make a Port-style wine often using zinfandel because of its ability to develop naturally high alcohol levels without fortification.
The 2009 Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel (375 ml, $24) certainly conjures the character of a Ruby Port. It has fine structure and acidity, with aromas and flavors of raspberry and black pepper. The 2009 St. Francis Sonoma County Port ($38) is a rich, blend of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, syrah, and alicante bouchet. Aromas of spice and dark fruits lead to exuberant wild berry flavors and a silky texture.
Where the south of France hugs the Mediterranean Sea, the Languedoc and the Roussillon produce a wide variety of sweet wines, mostly from variations of the white grape muscat and occasionally the red grape grenache. Most of these wines (known as Vin Doux Naturel) are made by fortifying the partially fermented wine with grape spirits. This report covers three of the best.
From the terraced vineyards near the seaside town of the same name, Banyuls, (grenache is the dominant grape) is a truly underappreciated sweet red wine. Since it is red and fortified, it is tempting to compare Banyuls to Port. But there are differences, such as lower alcohol and a slightly lighter style.
A fine example comes from one of the estates of the Dauré family, one of the Roussillon’s leading producers. The 2009 Les Clos de Paulilles “Rimage” (500 ml, $25) does bear a resemblance to Vintage Port with its blackberry, cherry fruit and chocolate notes.
Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois
Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois is one of the most important muscats based Vin Doux Naturel. It comes from high-altitude vineyards on an arid plain near the Languedoc community of the same name and north of the historic town of Narbonne. The wine is made with muscat blanc à petit grains, the best of the many muscat varieties. I found the nonvintage Les Petit Grains (375 ml, $14), from Les Vignerons de la Méditerranée (the growers association responsible for the good value Val d’Orbieu wines) to be a fine representative of the appellation. Its dramatic aromatics and fruit forward apricot, citrus and honey qualities are enticingly satisfying.
Muscat de Rivesaltes
In the Rousillon region, neighbor to the Pyrenees Mountains that form the border with Spain, Muscat de Rivesaltes is an appellation that accounts for most of France’s Muscat production. The Dauré family’s other estate, Château de Jau (which dates to 1792) is a standard bearer in the Rousillon and its Muscat de Rivesaltes is a fine example of the type. Although much Rivesaltes is made with the lesser muscat of Alexandria, the 2009 Chateau de Jau Muscat de Rivesaltes (500 ml, $25) is distinguished by the use of muscat blanc à petit grains. It is similar to the Les Petit Grains, though in a lighter, more refreshing style.
Many consider Sauternes the greatest of all sweet wines. The production zone is located just south of Bordeaux. This storied wine results from the marriage of late-harvested semillon (with small amounts of sauvignon blanc or occasionally muscadelle), and the amazing “noble rot” known as botrytis cinerea. This leads to deeply concentrated juice that yields luscious nectar of a wine – honeyed, earthy and even a little spicy.
For a great introduction to the wonders of Sauternes at a fair price, enjoy the 2008 Château de Cosse (375 ml, $25), This is the second wine of the great Château Rieussec. Yet it carries all of the qualities one would look for in fine Sauternes.
Although it is largely unknown among American consumers, Tokaji Aszu (pronounced TOE-keye-ee AH-zhu) is one of the greatest sweet wines on the planet. The Tokaj-Hegyalja region is about 150 miles northeast of Budapest, Hungary in the Zemplen Mountains at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers. It is here, not France or Germany, where the first discovery of the botrytis cinerea (the “noble rot”) was documented over 400 years ago, when it was realized the juice from rotten grapes could produce an unctuous, sweet wine.
Tokaji Aszu is crafted from indigenous grapes – primarily furmint, harslevelu and muscat blanc. Its unique production method involves blending a dry base wine with a sweet paste of aszu (the botrytis-infected grapes) in various proportions. The amount of residual sugar in the wine is ranked in levels ranging from three puttonyos up to six puttonyos. So it's no surprise that Tokaji Aszu became celebrated, favored by royal families throughout Europe. It’s rich, thick and refreshing because of the high acidity, with the flavors of dried apricots and oranges.
Today, The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, founded just in 1990, is the most important producer of Tokaji Aszu and lucky for us the most readily available in America. These wines can be ridiculously expensive, so it is a real treat to find such quality at reasonably accessible prices.
The 2007 5 Puttonyos “Red Label” (500 ml, $43) is a wine for superlatives. Amazingly luscious but lively, balanced and refreshing, you are likely to discern tropical, apricot, peach, and orange aromas and flavors. Intriguing hints of honey and earth cross the rich palate balanced with firming acidity.
The 2009 Mád Cuvée Late Harvest (375 ml, $20) is made from vineyards near the town of Mád not far from Tokaj. It is lighter and fresher but definitely has a sense of richness – an excellent introduction to the style, exhibiting a fine balance between fruity sweetness and taut acidity.
Rich Mauro has been writing about wine since 1995. He is a policy analyst for the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Reach him at email@example.com or 30 S. Prospect St., Colorado Springs 80903.