Sweet Dreams

Give your sugar some extra sugar with these sweet wines and dessert pairings.

If your knowledge of sweet wines is limited to Beringer white zinfandel or Boone’s Farm, there’s no better time than Valentine’s Day to educate your palate. Consider gifting your honey with a bottle of something sweet this year instead of that box of Godivas.

Bear in mind, though, that no terms in the wine world are as misunderstood as “dry” and “sweet.” The technical definition of a dry wine is one in which all the sugar present in grape juice is completely converted to ethyl alcohol and to carbon dioxide, a convenient by-product of fermentation those crafty Champenoise learned to capture in a bottle years ago. An off-dry wine, therefore, has some degree of sugar left behind in the final product, whether naturally occurring or amped up as part of the fermentation process, as is the case with popular sweet wines like port, sherry or madeira. Not all sweet wines are syrupy sweet of course; some have just a trace of sugar left behind, like delicate rieslings from the Mosel in Germany or fruity, friendly gamay wines from Beaujolais.

These recommended products range from a classic off-dry bubbly to a sticky-sweet treat from the south of Spain­—each is worth seeking out and is accompanied by suggested pairings. Sweet dreams!

Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec,“White Label” (Reims, France)
Back in the days of Prohibition, Gatsby and his pals drank gallons of bubbly that was not the dry style of Champagne preferred today. This Champagne from Veuve Clicquot is a delicious treat, with subtle notes of candied apricot and toasted marshmallow. Look for it in the half-bottle (375mL) size and serve well-chilled with a classic crème caramel.

Banfi, Brachetto d’Acqui, “Rosa Regale” (Piemonte, Italy — 2009)
I dare you to open this and find a single person who won’t guzzle it down. A deep ruby-toned sparkler from Italy, this perennial favorite offers notes of pomegranate, spiced cranberries and truffles. Serve with dark chocolate-covered strawberries for a simple but elegant dessert.

Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes, France — 1990)
Taste the legend, at least once in your life. Sauternes is the home of the most coveted sweet wines on the planet, and Yquem is the most coveted of all Sauternes. Made from a blend of botrytized (“nobly rotten”) grapes, Yquem is the elixir of the gods. A single jeroboam bottle of the amazing 1990 vintage recently fetched more than $3,000 at Spectrum’s wine auction. Look for smaller format bottles and serve in three-ounce pours. Sip, savor, repeat. Always best on its own. 

Royal Tokaji, “Mád Cuvée” (Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary – 2008)
Once limited to geeky sommeliers like myself, the sweet wines of Hungary are now arriving on the radar screen and on retail shelves near you. I love this bottling from the Royal Tokaji Company, which was founded to save these treasured wines from political extinction. On the palate, this wine is a blend of honeycomb, orange rind and vanilla with surprising acidity, given the sugar. Try it with a Grand Marnier soufflé or with grilled figs drizzled in honey.

Alvear, Pedro Ximenez Solera, “Dulce Viejo”  (Jerez, Spain – 1927)
My favorite discovery in recent years, and yep, it is from a solera in Spain that dates back to 1927. Made from raisinated Pedro Ximenez grapes, this product is like the love child of maple syrup and red wine­­—it’s thick and dark with notes of ground nuts, clove and chicory. Do like the locals do in southern Spain and pour it over vanilla ice cream. At about $22 a bottle, it’s unbelievably yummy.