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Reading Between the Wines: festive dessert wines

That famous Scottish sweet-tooth really comes into effect over Christmas and New Year, and this shows in the wines we buy as well.

Dessert and fortified wines are the perfect way to finish off the festive feast
Dessert and fortified wines are the perfect way to finish off the festive feast

At no other time of year do so many of us indulge in sweet and sticky wines. Perhaps the hedonism and indulgence of the season is already so intense that we think “why the devil not?”

This week, in the last of my end-of-year buying guides, I aim to help you answer that question, with a few ideas for your post-goose sauce.

Much like in last week’s article on spirits, the realm of fortified and dessert wines is as dense and complicated as many of its products. Put as simply as possible, these are categories of wine characterised by notably variable levels of alcohol and/or residual sugar. There is quite a range of methods used in the viticulture (growing and harvesting of grapes) and vinification (the process of making wine from said grapes) to make these ever-so-interesting wines.

In viticulture, methods used to sweeten wine often involve reducing the amount of water in the pressed grape juice. This can range from picking naturally frozen grapes, letting the grapes over-ripen and dry on the vine, or even intentionally allowing specific fungal infections to take hold and rot the grapes, prematurely shrivelling them. If you ever see the terms ‘ice wine’ or ‘botrytis’ (the rot in question) marked on a bottle, this is why. As gross as some of that sounds, it can make for really amazing wines.

Methods used in vinification have their own degrees of grossness too, but really, in a product based entirely on the principle of fermentation, what do you expect? You see, sugar and alcohol have a complex relationship, as the sugar in grape juice is the thing that gets fermented into alcohol when in contact with yeast. However once the alcohol reaches a certain percentage of volume (around 16-17%), it kills the yeast preventing further fermentation.

So in the vinification process, the wine can be sweetened by addition of a sweet grape juice to encourage further fermentation, or fortified by the addition of grape spirit to halt fermentation, or a method which employs both of these techniques to varying degrees. In the case of many fortified wines such as Sherry and Madeira, the wines are allowed to oxidise and go ‘off’ as such (albeit under very controlled circumstances), producing some wonderfully complex, unusual and funky flavours that can bend conventional rules of sweetness and dryness.

So, on to some recommendations! I should note, that unlike in the previous Christmas buying guides, this one is catered to the kind of dessert and fortified wines that suit rich, spiced Christmas puddings, and roaring, open fires. If you match one of these to a delicate lemon meringue on a sun-soaked summer’s evening, you are doing it wrong!

5 - H&H 5 Years Old Finest Full Rich Madeira (£11, Good Spirits Company)

If you’ve never had the chance to get into Madeira, I recommend starting here; a simple and unpretentious example, but with the benefit of some truly complimentary aging. This has a lovely warm, woody and gently nose, and the front palate is full-on sticky indulgence, screaming honey and cinnamon and finishing surprisingly freshly with lovely zingy hints of lemon and cedar.

Stickiness verdict: Pretty sweet, but with just a hint of savoury.

4 – Rubis Chocolate Velvet Wine, (£10.99, Quel Vin)

Another funky oddity courtesy of Jin Grifffiths at Quel Vin. She says: “Love wine? Love chocolate? This is an indulgent blend of fortified red wine (Spanish Tempranillo) infused with rich, dark chocolate”. No points for guessing what kind of desserts this stuff would be well matched to!

Stickiness verdict: Dark and smoothly sweet, with some Rioja-esque dryness on the finish.

3 – De Bortoli “Noble One” Semillon, 2008 (£20, Oddbins)

An old favourite from the ever-reliable De Bortoli family in Australia, this is New South Wales’ answer to Bordeaux’s Sauternes. Jamie Maitland of Oddbins Hyndland Road describes this as “lusciously sweet, with an elegant fruit structure and a touch of citrus zest”. The “Noble” refers to ‘noble rot’ – the common name for botrytis – which is allowed to infect the vines that are picked for this wine. Who knew that a wine from rotten grapes could be so awesome?

Stickiness verdict: A sticky all-rounder, but with the most citrus notes of any on this list.

2 – Fattoria Dei Barbi Vin Santo, 2008 (£19.18, Spirited Wines)

A favourite of Jane Wilson of Spirited Wines, she says this is “just that something a wee bit out of the ordinary, as either a treat for yourself, or as a gift for a dessert wine fan”. Vinified from grapes pre-dried on straw mats after picking, this is a particularly dense and rich example of Vin Santo, that could stand up to the richest of Christmas puds, and even the odd Yule Log.

Stickiness verdict: Not your normal Vin Santo – a lovely golden chestnut colour, and richly gloopy.

1 – Quinta Do Noval, Colheita 1997 (£37, Good Spirits Company)

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a glass of Port! Like Lustau in Sherry, Quinta Do Noval are a wonderful example of how sometimes the biggest companies can still produce some of the finest hand-crafted products. This example of a single vintage Tawny Port (most aged Tawny Ports are blended) that has spent its entire life aging in oak, becoming so complex, nutty, tangy, warming and rich that pudding is no longer necessary - an absolute taste explosion!

Stickiness verdict: Medium stickiness, but with all the Christmas flavours you can imagine, under one cork!

And there you have it – over the past few weeks we’ve sorted out Christmas fizz, spirits and dessert wines! I hope you all have a lovely Christmas, and that you really enjoy your tipples! I’ll see you on the other side – possibly a little worse for wear!

Reading Between the Wines: top five Christmas fizzes

Reading Between the Wines: getting into the Christmas spirits

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