Dessert wines are utterly superfluous. Therein lies their inestimable appeal. Luxuries tout court, serving them they will leave your guests with the indelible impression of having not been merely welcomed, but pampered.
Choices go well beyond the traditional ports, Sauternes and German late-harvest Rieslings to include a new breed of assorted exotica, including Muscat Canellis from California, spritzy Moscatos from Italy and even appropriately named "stickies" from Australia. Regardless of style, however, the common denominators of the best dessert wines are intense fruitiness married to a sweetness that is never cloying, sugars in taut balance with the other flavors and a bracing cut of balancing acidity or tannin.
Luxurious and exotic need not mean expensive. Though famous dessert wines such as Chateau d'Yquem can easily command $150 or more per precious half-bottle, sticker prices for many other types start as low as $6 for a full bottle. Given the tight-packed sweetness that marks good examples, a little bit goes a long way.
DESSERT WINES AND FOOD
No wine exists in a culinary vacuum. And, like any other wine, a dessert wine must be able to "live with" the food it accompanies. Happy marriages can be arranged, but beware. Some sweet wines -- for example, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese -- are so outrageously vino-centric they can't share the evening's curtain call with anything else: They must be the dessert. And some desserts, mostly chocolate, show a similar disdain for cohabitation.
Even under the best of circumstances, matching sweet tastes can be tricky. The taste of one element, whether the dessert or the dessert wine, will want to dominate. The best dishes for sweet wines tend to be simple, and not so sweet as to fight the wine. Fruit tarts with a buttery crust can provide a perfect backdrop for a dessert wine, as can fresh fruit by itself. Fancier, sweeter desserts should not be matched directly against a rare dessert wine that you wish to make the center of attention. Better to serve the dessert first in such cases, and sip the wine afterward. In truth, the only way to know for sure about a direct match is to try the wine with the dessert beforehand. Surely more odious chores could be imagined.
BUYING DESSERT WINES
Listed below in order of preference are a bevy of top-flight dessert wines in all price ranges. The emphasis is on the new, less obvious choices. Prices are approximate. Your retailer can order from the wholesaler or importer listed (the distributor may be different in Maryland and Virginia).
FORTIFIED DESSERT WINES
Moscato Passito di Pantelleria
"Bukkuram" De Bartoli 1986 ($16 half-bottle; Sicily; white): This wine, with its intense spicy and orangey bouquet, is made from semi-dried grapes from gnarled old vines growing on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, between Sicily and Tunisia. On the palate, the moderate sweetness is set off against elegant honeysuckle and fig nuances. This wine goes well with egg-based desserts, such as zabaglione, and with summer fruits. (Your retailer can order from wholesaler Wine Bow/Wine Source.)
Baileys Founder Dessert Tokay ($18; Australia; tawny): The extraordinary roasted nut and honey bouquet of this wine is married to deep, complex, toffee/fruit flavors. It's quite rich, but still crisp somehow, and makes a pleasant accompaniment for sweet puddings or moist, sweet cakes. (Wholesaled by New World/Franklin Selections; in D.C., retailed exclusively at Pearson's Liquor & Wine, 2436 Wisconsin Ave. NW.)
Mas Amiel 1989 "Vin Doux
Naturel"; Mas Amiel 15 Ans
d'Age ($13 and $17; Maury, France, red): From one of the most obscure wine-producing regions of France, this grenache-based wine spends one year in glass demijohns exposed to the blazing summer sun and frigid winter blasts of the nearby Pyrenees before it is bottled. Such torture produces a wine that is not unlike port, slightly less sweet, but with more of a roasted note in the bouquet and in the flavor. Mas Amiel 15 Ans d'Age (15 Years Old) is a blend of older vintages, with a port-like bouquet, but with a dash of the appealing oxidized note the Spanish call "rancio." Mas Amiel can stand up to apricots and sweet tarts. (Wholesaled by Hand Picked Selections.)
Hauner Malvasia delle Lipari
1987 ($13 half-bottle; Italy; white): The pungent bouquet of this wine reminds me of a cross between a Grand Cru Chablis and a lightly botrytised Sauternes. On the palate, moderate sweetness allows the exotic spice and fruit flavors to shine through, making it a perfect mate for fruitcake and meringue-topped pies, e.g., lemon-meringue. (Wholesaled by Wine Bow/Wine Source.)
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 1987 "Reserve Personnelle" (Na- tivelle) ($8 half-bottle; Rhone, France; white): France's greatest sweet muscats are made in the Co~tes du Rhone, and this example is quite stylish, with a distinctive orange/honey bouquet and excellent intensity of flavor. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise goes well with fruit and fruit flan. (Wholesaled by Robert Kacher Selections.)
Domaine Du Mas Blanc Grand Vin
de Banyuls 1986 ($18; Banyuls, France; red): Like the Amiel, this wine is also exposed to the vagaries of the elements for a year, though it is kept in oak cooperage rather than glass. It faintly resembles a ruby port, but to be fair, the marriage of ripe, roasted fruit and strong wood is unique -- and quite appealing. Also, like the Amiel, it's a good complement for apricots and sweet tarts. (Wholesaled by Vineyard Brands.)
Emilio Lustau Moscatel Superior
"Emilin" ($11; Spain; tawny): This may be the greatest bargain in a solera-type dessert wine -- unless, of course, you prefer another of the remarkable Lustau sherries. Dense, ripe, smooth caramel and roasted-nut flavors and aromas, and a mouth-filling, lingering finish. Other excellent Lustau dessert options include the East India sherry and the San Emilio. The Emilin goes well with light cakes, creme caramel and zabaglione. (Wholesaled by Christopher Cannan Selections.)
NON-FORTIFIED DESSERT WINES
Bonny Doon Muscat Canelli 1989
($17 half-bottle; California; white): Nectar. Opulent pineapple and honey notes on the bouquet. On the palate, this California dessert wine is fresh and crisp, with intense tropical fruit flavors and moderate sweetness. Serve cold, perhaps with fresh fruit. (Wholesaled by DOPS Wholesale.) Frick Pinot Gris 1986 Selections
de Grains Nobles; Josmeyer 1986
Gewurztraminer Selections de
Grains Nobles ($20 half-bottle and $40; Alsace; white): With Selections de Grains Nobles from producers such as Hugel and Weinbach now running $100 or more a bottle, these two examples from two good houses start to look reasonable. They are costly to produce because they are made from individually selected grapes. In style they are similar to a German Auslese or Beerenauslese, but they are more alcoholic and peculiarly powerful. Powerful enough, in fact, to stand up to fruitcake. (Wholesaled by Pearson's Imports.)
Bonnezeaux Godineau 1989
"Domaine Des Petits Quarts" ($17; Loire, France; white): The harbinger of great things to come from the Loire's extraordinary 1989 vintage, this wine packs a remarkable wallop of fruitiness set off by taut acidity. Because it is so tightknit at this point, try opening it a few days before service. This dessert wine goes splendidly with cheesecake and meringue-topped pies. (Wholesaled by Weygandt-Metzlar.)
Domaine de Beillant Coteaux du
Layon 1989 ($7; Loire, France; white): Undoubtedly a bargain, this refreshing wine has sophistication that belies its price. Because it is not as intense as many dessert wines, it is a fine match for a fresh fruit dessert, cheesecake or meringue-topped pies. (Wholesaled by USA Wine Imports.)
Clos Guirouilh 1985 Jurancon
Moelleux ($6 half-bottle; Jurancon, France; white): Legend has it that Jurancon was used to christen Henry IV of France, but in more recent centuries this wine has been somewhat neglected. Good versions, like this moderately sweet example, are quite elegant and capable of long aging. Extended aging further develops the exotic tropical fruit nuances and unique bittersweet finish, making it a natural to go with nut-based puddings and sweet fruits. (Wholesaled by Christopher Cannan Selections.)
Moscato d'Asti 1989 "Braida";
Moscato d'Asti 1989 La Spinetta
(both $14 to $17; Piedmont, Italy; white): Last but not least, these are the only dessert wines that will also work at breakfast the next morning. Very low in alcohol (7 percent or less), these slightly frizzante ("bubbly") wines have a captivating muscat aroma and charming vanilla and melon flavors. They go quite nicely with light cakes -- even your brunch brioche. (The La Spinetta is wholesaled by Wine Source, the other by Bacchus.)
Ben Giliberti is a Washington free-lancer who writes regularly about wine.