A Perfect Ending

“This rhubarb flan I’ve just made would go beautifully with a glass of sweet wine.  I don’t suppose we’ve got anything suitable?”  My wife had barely finished her question before I was heading towards our wine rack.

We often think of the different styles of dry wines pairing well with particular main course dishes – white Burgundy with chicken, perhaps, Rioja or Claret with lamb – but it is the same with sweet wines and desserts.  A delicate pudding would be overwhelmed by a powerful Australian ‘stickie’, yet that’s exactly the wine you would be thinking of to match a rich chocolate dessert or Christmas Pudding.

So, how did I choose a partner for our rhubarb flan?  Rhubarb can be quite acidic so we cooked it with some orange zest and juice to counter that and a little cinnamon for a soft, spicy flavour.  And those additions pointed me in a particular direction for the wine.  Flavours of orange or marmalade are often found in wines made with botrytised grapes.  (This happens when the grapes are left on the vine until they are attacked by the botrytis fungus which shrivels the berries and concentrates the sugars).  Thin skinned grapes (Semillon is a good example) grown in vineyards in humid areas are particularly prone to this – Sauternes in southern Bordeaux is probably the best known – but I opened a bottle from the Australian producer, De Bortoli, who also use the same grape variety.

Their ‘Florence Broadhurst’ Botrytis Semillon (Majestic, £9.99 for a half-bottle) is, as you can see, a wonderful deep gold colour with lovely honey, orange and spice flavours – just a perfect match for our rhubarb flan.  But, although the flavour is quite intense, this is not a heavy wine as, unlike many sweet wines, this has just 10% alcohol – an important consideration if you’ve already enjoyed a dry wine with your main course.

We love sweet wines and have always got a few bottles in stock for occasions such as this where a pudding is just crying out for a glass of something to end a lovely meal perfectly.

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe 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.