Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!
But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.
I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.
Domaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.
The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.
This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.
Many years ago, in my early days of studying wine (rather than just drinking it), one of the bottles our tutor brought in for us to taste was a delightful sweet wine that none of us had ever heard of before. It was called Jurançon and it resulted in an immediate ‘Wow!’ from the whole class. I’ve been buying it ever since – when I can find it, that is, because production is not large and much of it is drunk locally, which, in this case, is in the far south-west corner of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
I couldn’t recommend one producer over another – they all have their own slightly different styles – but I haven’t had a bad bottle yet, so, if you enjoy dessert wine and see Jurançon, then I’d suggest you give it a try.
As I got to know these wines better, I realised that, apart from the lovely sweet bottles, there was also a dry equivalent: Jurançon Sec – if it doesn’t have ‘sec’ on the label it will be sweet. Both are made from a blend of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, with some Courbu and Camaralet added to some of the dry versions. All are local grape varieties; none, as far as I know, is grown outside the region, so those in search of membership of the ‘100 Club’ should take note!
As with the sweet versions, Jurançon Sec from most producers is worth buying although we particularly enjoyed Domaine Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse (Vine Trail, £13) recently. Its tangy flavours of citrus and herbs and just a hint of spicy smokiness from the gentle oak ageing reminded me of a nice white Burgundy – there were certainly shades of the same flavours in an Auxey-Duresses we had in a restaurant a few days later; the only difference: excluding the inevitable restaurant mark-up, the Jurançon would be about half the price!
It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more. So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.
Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.
Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran.
Even so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.
The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around? Or is it purely by chance? Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.