Sweet wines – and I mean here those that you can happily enjoy with a dessert – can be a real delight and I’m constantly amazed by just how diverse the choice is. For maximum pleasure, just make sure the wine is a little bit sweeter than the pudding.
For gently sweet desserts (think zabaglione or panna cotta), look for something at the delicate end of the spectrum: a slightly sparkling Moscato d’Asti or one of the German selected harvest Rieslings, the latter often with just 6% alcohol. A little weightier are the well-known wines of Sauternes and the, sadly, under-rated bottles from the Loire or Jurançon – perfect with lemon tart or Tarte Tatin. And then, there’s the heavyweights: Australian ‘stickies’, Banyuls from the south of France, port and PX sherry – wines to pair with chocolate or Christmas Pudding.
With so many different styles to choose from, surely, there’s something for everyone? But, no – there are still some wine lovers that won’t touch a sweet wine.
And, I suppose the Anthemis Muscat from the Greek island of Samos wouldn’t be my first choice to convince them otherwise – it’s just a bit too scary! Just look at the colour: a lovely mahogany brown. The nose is all Christmas cake spices and nuts. And, in the mouth, there’s a wonderfully coating texture full of the same spices along with honey, figs, dates and prunes. Sweet, yes, but in no way cloying. We served it alongside some beautifully ripe peaches and apricots and it went perfectly – but a blue cheese would be a really good alternative.
It’s super-concentrated, so a little goes a long way. A half bottle, available from the Wine Society (£6.95), will easily serve 4 or 5 people, while the slightly larger, 50cl, bottle sold in Waitrose for £9.99 will give you 6 or 7 glasses. Delicious!
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.