As the earth rotates on its axis we inevitably reach the winter months. Nature slows down and animals, plants and we humans seek creature comforts and warmth. Perhaps we can’t do much about the season, however we can do something about how we endure the season. Commonly referred to as dessert wines, (an ill-fitting catch phrase, sweet wines is better), ice wines, late harvest wines, Sherries and Ports fit the season like a glove. “People see the word Port and think they can only have it at Christmas by the fireplace,” says Peter Prager, whose Prager Winery & Port Works in Napa Valley has been making fortified wines for three decades. He believes these wines are not just for the winter months or as after dinner dessert wines. “Everyone feels they’ve started off with sweet wine and ‘progressed’ into dry,” he says. “The media looks at fortified wines as a novelty.” This explains why sweet wines don’t garner much respect. “We use the milieu of time, place and social setting,” explains Andrew Quady, of Quady Winery in Madera, California who has produced sweet wines since the 1970s. “Dessert wines are enhancements to particular sorts of life experiences,” he says, in an effort to teach consumers that sweet wines have their rightful place at the table. Prager believes most people actually covet sweet wines, but feign ignorance because a fondness for sweet suggests an unrefined palette. “People talk dry, but they drink sweet. We are the Pepsi generation.” He suggests that sweet wines pair remarkably well with foods. He recommends Port with ham, young vintage Port with pepper steak, tawney Ports with shrimp because, “you can drink the wine and still taste the shrimp,” and sweet wines are always excellent with the ubiquitous fruit and cheese plate.
Both Quady and Prager are tying to break the misconception that sweet wines should only be considered as dessert wines. “The old fashioned American desserts are too sweet to be accompanied by anything other than coffee,” Quady says. “On the palate, when the dessert wine is less sweet than the dessert, the taster doesn’t enjoy the wine, it begins to taste dry,” he advises. So now is the time to experience the diverse world of sweet wines. “Once people try them they secretly love them,” Prager notes. Here then is a truncated primer to sweet wines. Go explore!
Late Harvest: refers to letting the grapes get more hang time on the vines after harvest, thus concentrating their sugars so they are naturally sweeter. Virtually any grape can be a late harvest wine, from Chardonnay to Merlot to Sauvignon Blanc.
|The very cool port city of Oporto|
Ice Wine: Authentic ice wines are uncommon. Grapes are harvested in the dead of winter. Some producers freeze their grapes using commercial freezers, but this is not true ice wine, which only happens when Mother Nature wants it to. Juice flowing from a wine press containing frozen grapes is higher in sweetness because the water is retained in the press as ice.
Port: (fortified wines) Ports fall into two categories. True ports, from Oporto in Portugal, and California-style Ports, which technically cannot be called Ports as the name refers to a specific place, like Champaign. True Ports use Portuguese grapes like Tinto Cão and Touriga Nacional. The California versions use anything and everything; Chardonnay, petite sirah, Cabernet, syrah and zinfandel. Port-type wines are typically fortified with brandy or distilled grape spirits.
Sherry: From Spain comes this often misunderstood wine. Usually considered an aperitif rather than a sweet wine (though they are made both ways), Sherries are rich complex wines that can age for decades and offer a wide diversity of styles.