Wine club: A drop of the sweet stuff

Grapes for sweet wine are often hand-picked berry by berry.  No wonder the wines cost so much.

Grapes for sweet wine are often hand-picked berry by berry. No wonder the wines cost so much.

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Pudding wines may be unfashionable but they can be a real joy to the tastebuds, writes Christine Austin.

‘My husband has an unfashionable taste for sweet wines,” writes a reader from Ilkley, “and his long-term favourite, Vouvray, has disappeared from Tesco, Booths and M&S.”

This is a shame, and I will try to help find some replacements, but it got me thinking about the sheer unfashionable nature of sweet wines and why that is the case.

Just weeks after the peak selling season for sweet wines, many of the major supermarkets seem to have sidelined them, leaving a gap in this lusciously decadent area of wine.

Many people declare that they don’t like sweet wine, without having tasted anything better than a cheap Spanish muscat. But sweet wines are a real joy to the tastebuds, packing intensity of flavour and a vibrant balance of sweet and sour. Their proper place is at the end of a meal, when you have battled through aperitif, starters and mains yet still manage to smile when a selection of puds are brought out to tempt tastebuds and waistline.

If I really have eaten too much at this stage I might just waive the puddings but I refuse to give up on pudding wines. Often these small bottles of sunshine are the essential restorative needed to inject a dash of sweetness into winter and if you work the sums out they are not nearly as naughty as you might think they are. It all comes down to quantity.

I find that I can get six small glasses of pudding wine from a half bottle. Even with a monumental 100 grams of sugar per litre, which rivals many good quality sweeties, a small glass of dessert wine will still limbo under the usual 120 calories you find in a normal glassful of Côtes du Rhône or Australian Shiraz. One of the real joys of sweet wines is that once opened, they keep well in the fridge. A small bottle can be opened and sipped over several days and it still delivers unctuous flavours and bright fruit. I find that the remains of a half bottle of sweet wine can act as a chef’s tipple and be enjoyed while cooking dinner for several nights.

Just for those who are worried that a sweet wine is the same as a dry wine with several spoonfuls of sugar stirred in – it isn’t. Making sweet wine demands real skill and a particular weather pattern that allows the grapes to shrivel on the vines and concentrate the natural flavours, sweetness and acidity. Some might even have been affected by a beneficial mould that starts just on one berry and quickly spreads across the bunch, soaking up the moisture but leaving the natural sweetness and acidity intact. The result is that these grey-coated grapes are flavour capsules, ready to unleash a concentrated juice when they are picked and pressed. Once fermented, the wines are often aged to bring out their complexity of flavour and they retain their sweetness and acidity with knife-edge precision, complementing a sweet dessert but leaving the palate clean and refreshed.

Different puddings demand different pudding wines. It is just a question of balance. Lighter fruit-based puds can cope with a lighter fruitier wine while a heavy pud needs a more powerful wine in the glass. Here’s my selection of desserts with a few suggested wines.

Light fruity puddings such as Pavlova, fruit salad, strawberries and fruit sorbets need the lightest of sweet wines with good balancing acidity. Head to Tesco for Concha y Toro Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Chile (£7.29 for half a bottle) where the bright fruity flavours are balanced by zesty citrus acidity. Alternatively, pour a light fruity sparkling wine such as Marks &Spencer’s Asti (£7.99) which tastes like freshly-picked grapes straight from the vine. Frothy, fizzy and fun, it is the sherbet dab of wine, sneered at by some but utterly delicious. My other favourite, highlighted over the page with a delicious rhubarb dessert is The Ned Sticky Sauvignon Blanc (£15.99, down to £12.79 on multibuy, Majestic) which has flavours of crystalised grapefruit.

Medium weight fruity desserts such as apricot tart or tarte tatin need a wine with some weight such as a Sauternes. Waitrose has its own label Sauternes 2007 from the up-market Ch. Suduiraut (£16.99 for a half bottle) which echoes the apricot fruit of the dessert and adds a few notes of honey and figs. At Majestic there is the slightly less intense but still utterly delicious Castelnau de Suduiraut 2009 (£11.99) while The Halifax Wine Co has Rustenberg Straw Wine 2011 from South Africa which is made from partially dried grapes. With notes of peach marmalade and honey, this is a gorgeous wine and, at £9.95, it limbos under the usual Majestic and Waitrose prices.

Creamy, toasty puddings such as crème brulée or bread and butter pudding need a wine to reflect those light caramelised flavours and Tokaji is just about perfect. It comes from Hungary and is harvested grape by grape and then slowly fermented and aged in small casks. The result is a wine packed with marmalade and quince flavours with enough body to balance the pud. Try Tokaji Blue label 5 Puttonyos from Royal Tokaji 2008, (£12.29 for a tiny 25cl bottle).

Lightish chocolate puddings such as a roulade, a chocolate mousse or chocolate-coated profiteroles need a rich, smooth wine and the Asda Extra Special Moscatel from Valencia in Spain (£4.50) is remarkably good with fragrant peachy notes.

Big chocolate desserts made with pure dark chocolate need a wine with deep concentration such as Elysium from Andrew Quady in California. Made from Black Muscat Hamburg grapes, it has the taste of black cherries, chocolate and a touch of floral Muscat lightening the finish. This currently on offer at Majestic, down from £12.49 to £9.99 on multibuy.

Port is also a good match with chocolate. Try Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage £15 but currently on offer at Waitrose at £11.17 until February Tesco at £8.78 until March 11.

Caramel and toffee flavours such as sticky toffee pudding demand a substantial sweet wine and the intense dark fig and raisin flavours of Gonzales Byass Noë Pedro Ximenez (£19.99 for 37.5cl Waitrose) are perfect. Best poured over the dessert rather than sipped, it is also works well with ice cream for the ultimate indulgence.

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