As regular readers will know, my wife and I enjoy good food as well as good wine – and we like cooking (just as well in these days when eating out is so restricted). One of our favourite recipe books (one of many) is “Fruits of the Sea” by TV Chef Rick Stein (BBC Publications). Despite being a professional chef, most of his recipes are quite straightforward to follow and we particularly like the way he combines ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider together. For example, a fresh ginger and sweet Monbazillac wine sauce to accompany brill, john dorey (or turbot if you’re celebrating). Fish and sweet wine are certainly not an obvious pairing but, in this case, they complement each other perfectly.
One advantage of the dish is that the recipe only calls for a small glass of the wine, leaving the rest for the chef (and me, the chef’s mate) to enjoy with our desserts. We didn’t actually use Monbazillac; Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ Muscat de St John de Minervois (a bargain at £5.25 a half bottle) is an excellent substitute with similar levels of sweetness and richness.
St John de Minervois is a tiny enclave in the far north of the much larger Appellation Contrôlée (AC) area of Minervois, in the south of France’s Languedoc region. Minervois itself is famous for robust, hearty reds but St John, with vineyards in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), has a separate AC for sweet wines made from the delightfully aromatic Muscat grape. Here, the wines are allowed to start fermenting and then, before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the fermentation is stopped by adding a slug of grape brandy (the same method used for making port). This kills the yeast (which dies happily, of course!!) and leaves a delicious (15% alcohol) wine with the Muscat variety’s trademark grapey sweetness.
So, that was our dessert wine sorted. To partner Rick Stein’s delicious fish dish, I’d had a lovely Condrieu – a full bodied white from near Lyons in France – tucked away under the stairs just waiting for the right moment. The two would have made a lovely combination but sadly, I’d waited too long and the wine was rather past its best – a lesson learnt for the future.
There are many variations in sweet wine making but, perhaps, the most unusual is Ice Wine (or Eiswein as it is spelt in the Germanic speaking countries of Europe where it is often found).
This delicate but focussed sweet wine is made by leaving the grapes on the vine far beyond normal autumn harvesting dates until November or even December when there is a severe frost and temperatures reach minus 8°C (18°F) or below. When that happens, pickers are sent out into the vineyard before dawn to harvest the grapes while they are still frozen (the grapes as well as the pickers!). The crop is then rushed back to the winery and the grapes are pressed before they defrost. This releases the sugar in the grapes but leaves the water behind as ice pellets. The intensely sugar-rich liquid is then fermented as far as is possible – yeast struggles to cope with the level of neat sugar and surrenders (dying happily!!) way before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Result: a beautifully balanced sweet wine but with relatively low alcohol.
Because these conditions can’t be guaranteed every year, Ice Wine/ Eiswein is quite rare (and consequently seriously expensive!). But recently, due to the temporary enforced closure of many businesses due to the corona virus, a local restaurant decided to sell some of its wine stocks. And, among the bottles I was lucky enough to buy from them was a delicious Ice Wine from Pelee Island on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Canada. Made from the Vidal grape variety, a Canadian speciality, this had wonderful flavours of honey, grapefruit and marmalade and a finish that could be measured in minutes not seconds.
This was a real treat but, sadly, one unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.