Have a Sweet New Year!

rich mauro peoples palateSomething about the cold weather and holidays always gets me in the mood for a good dessert wine. I’ve discovered a few that I am looking forward to helping me get through the rest of winter. Of course, the new year is celebrated in many cultures. So, herewith sweet new year accompaniments from four countries.

Happy New Year!

I believe late harvest wines are the most common dessert wine. Leaving the grapes on the vine past normal harvest until they become super ripe, results in concentrated sugars and a luscious wine. In certain cases, producers leave grapes to hang on the vine until they freeze, thus making “Eiswein” in Germany and “Icewine” in Canada.

Rather than wait for Nature, some producers actually freeze the grapes themselves after harvest. Iconic Joseph Phelps winery in Napa Valley makes a very special dessert wine from the scheurebe grape using this method. The 2009 “Eisrebe” (.375ml, $50) shows amazingly unctuous honey, peach, apricot and citrus. Try it with fruit, blue and creamy cheeses, nut or fruit based desserts, cookies, cheesecake or crème brulee.

Some California producers make a Port-style wine using zinfandel because of its ability to develop naturally high alcohol levels. The 2008 Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel (.375ml, $24), though not fortified, certainly conjures the character of a Ruby Port. It has fine structure and acidity, with aromas and flavors of raspberry and black pepper.

Feliz Ano Novo!

Speaking of Port, “Port” from Northern Portugal’s Upper Douro Valley (where the growing region is extreme with long hot summers, very cold winters, low average rainfall and rugged, rocky soils) is a different sort of sweet wine. High alcohol (fortified with brandy) and bursting with red and black fruit flavors, it is a powerful wine, even in styles that manage to fashion a sense of elegance. The richness of intense dark fruits and natural sweetness balanced with refreshing tannin and finished with an alcoholic kick always warms my soul.

Ruby/Reserve Ports are blended from several different vintages and bottled young to preserve the fresh, assertive style that is ready to drink upon release. Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve ($23) is a delectable choice with concentrated black-ruby color and aromas of ripe plums and dark cherries.

Tawny Ports also marry several vintages but have spent extensive time in casks, periods ranging form ten to forty years (the year on label refers to the average age of blended wine). Tawnies mellow in the barrel and are released when their peak of maturity is reached.

For me, the 20-year tawny is ideal, showing the complexity of age but amazingly with the freshness of youth. For instance, Graham’s 20 Year Tawny ($60) has a complex nose of nuts, honey and fig with an impressive purity of fruit. Rich, mature fruit flavors beautifully meld with a luscious texture that exudes delicacy and elegance, while retaining, structure.

Dow’s 10 Year Tawny ($33) is quite fine in its own right but is a little sharper and not as complex, though still quite tasty. Smooth and delicate with a nose of brown spices, nuts and cherry, it exhibits elegance, with hints of dried fruit.

Late Bottled Vintage Port is similar to Vintage Port but spends a longer time in oak cask, typically four and six years and is considered ready to drink when bottled. Dow’s 2005 Late Bottled Vintage ($20) is full-bodied, with rich ripe blackberry fruit but balanced with good acidity and soft tannins. Tasty now, it would drink well for a few years.

Vintage Port is made only in exceptional years from a producer’s top vineyards and bottled after two years in barrel. These wines are highly praised for their intensity and ability to develop over many decades. The 2007 Smith Woodhouse ($56) from very low production, very old vines is a bargain exhibiting enticingly candied and mineral scented aromas, is well balanced, and should mature well.

Although some experiment with Port during a meal, it is best enjoyed chilled at the end of the meal, either with dessert or as dessert. Dark chocolate or blue cheeses are ideal matches but other desserts, cheeses, and nuts can work, too.

Felíz Año Nuevo!

Sherry is another fortified wine made in neighboring Spain. There are dry and sweet styles. Among the dessert styles, Cream Sherry, made by blending a dry wine with a very sweet wine, is the best known. Pedro Ximenex, made solely from the Pedro Ximenex grape, is the thickest and sweetest. The raisin, fig, caramel and date qualities of the third style, Olorso Dulce, is on display in the Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847 ($20). Oloroso is a special strong, well-aged Sherry and Oloroso Dulce is sweetened with Pedro Ximenex. This one is rich and dense, with a velvety palate and concentrated flavors of caramel, raisin and fig, with a touch of almond. Pair with desserts of similar flavors or pour over vanilla ice cream.

Bonne Année!

Finally, I present a ginger liqueur from French producer Domaine de Canton ($32). This unique liqueur is crafted from baby Vietnamese ginger, VSOP and XO Cognac, Provençal honey, Tunisian Ginseng, and fresh vanilla bean. It bursts with flavor, the distinctive ginger enhanced by the Cognac. Domaine de Canton is handmade in small batches and eschews artificial additives, preservatives, or colorants in any stage of production. It is a fantastic compliment to cookies and biscotti.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.