Candyland for grownups
Dessert wines bring sweetness to maturity
There exists a strange, pyramid-shaped image of the way people get into loving and drinking wine and what they “graduate” to.
The evolution of the American wine consumer’s palate often starts with cheap sweet wines: $8 German riesling or moscato, innocuous blends with playful labels. Some people get bored of the saccharine monolith and move on to drier wines from well-understood regions. California pinot noir, Argentina malbec and New Zealand sauvignon blanc are great examples.
These wine categories are cash cows for corporate retail, so you’re damn right that cleanliness, precision and overall rightup-the-middle fruit profiles are the name of the game for many larger producers.
Some people get bored of this precision and look to get a little funk in their glass. They start hunting wines that embrace a little more of that earthiness: grenache or syrah-driven wines from Rhone, France, are a great example of wines with “terroir” (a sense of place, or “you’ll smell things that don’t always smell like fruit”).
The whole of Italy has to be included in this, with its expressive wines made from grapes like nebbiolo, sangiovese, aglianico, corvina and thousands of others.
But it all comes full circle back to candy land.
For many, German Rieslings are the destination. Coveted, elegant wines that balance sugar, fruit, acid in a wine that could age for 50 years? Count me in.
Here is a category of vino that should make both the wine geek and the just-getting-started wine lover happy: dessert wines.
Dessert wines are a game changer. The best of them are endlessly lush, excitingly fruity but complex, and generally drink really well with your favorite homemade sweets. Bonus fact: Some dessert wines can age for 50 years or more, at a price far lower than, say, high-level red wines from Bordeaux.
It would be silly to not mention the mind-boggling value of Hungarian dessert wine. Eastern Hungary is known for Tokaji, a style of sweet wine made primarily from the furmint grape. They tend to range from as low as $30 for a 500ml bottle, to as much as $600 for a bottle of Tokaji Aszu Eszencia, a wine that tends to only have about 2 percent alcohol and is generally considered the sweetest wine in the world.
That said, The Royal Tokaji Wine Company produces an opulent, rich and sexy wine called Mád Cuvee Late Harvest. At $25, this is a steal. The 2010 vintage is honeyed and peachy, with layers of chewy apricot flavors. I’ve had wines three times this price that fall flat in comparison. The “Mád” part of the name comes from the village of Mád, a farm town with a population lower than MSUs Holden Hall. Blink and you’ll miss it, so goes the cliché. But don’t miss this wine. You may not see this value again.
If you have a stretchy wallet and you’re looking for elegance, Domaine des Baumard’s 2010 Quarts de Chaume is stupid amazing. Fair warning: There’s not that much available, but it’s available right now. The Loire, France producer Domaine des Baumard is arguably one of the top 5 chenin blanc producers in the world, and this wine only adds to the proof.
I’m mystified how a wine can have such a clear focus, yet be so playful with flavors like candied tangerine peel, mushroom, nougat, grapefruit, blood orange, but finish both crisp and with lingering complexity. It’s pricy, and roughly $70. But this is one of the best 5 dessert wines I’ve had in my life. If you want to splurge, do it here.
Want something with some age on it?
Check out Bodegas Toro Albala’s Don PX. The current vintages in the market are 1986 and 1987. For real. The grape is Pedro Ximenez, a very white grape with a narrow regional focus (mostly southern Spain) but intriguing implementations. The Don PX drinks like an oddball Tawny Port, caramel flavors, dark brown coloring, etc.
But, wait ... it’s a white grape. What gives? The winery ages the wine for 25 years in barrel. The result is polychromatic and bonkers. It looks like a combination of liquid Snickers and pistachio oil. It tastes like figs, prunes, german chocolate cake and peanut shells. For roughly $40, you can taste generational history on an impulse.
Sure, these wines might cost a little more than Cupcake moscato. But they will make your family desserts sing with delight.
Justin King is a certified sommelier and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt, and was named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Best New Sommeliers of 2017.