Sauternes and Tokaji offering affordable and alternative wines.

  • Friday 23 January 2009

SARAH JANE EVANS MW finds stickies from around the world as noble
as Sauternes and Tokaji offering a viable – and affordable – alternative

Sweet wine lovers are inclined to be defensive. It’s the result of all the years of criticism by tannin-loving traditionalists who don’t believe that sweet wines – or their drinkers – can be serious. (Left-bank claret lovers may make allowances for a Sauternes; Champagne drinkers for the very occasional demi-sec; Brunello devotees for an elegant Vin Santo.)

There are honourable exceptions to this rule of course – classic sweet wines that even red wine fans will sip: notably those from Tokaji, Alsace, the Loire, Germany, Italy and Austria. Today, the list of affordable, good quality Sauternes alternatives is lengthening. Fortunately, sweet wines are finding favour once more, and sweet wine enthusiasts dare to speak out, and drink up, without embarrassment.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, availability: EU trade barriers have been coming down, allowing Europeans to discover the sweet wines of South Africa and Canada, for instance.

Second, the restaurant trade: restaurateurs have discovered the financial as well as gastronomic benefits of offering sweet and fortified wines by the glass with dessert.

Third, winemakers: some of them have worked abroad and learnt techniques; others are experimenting with traditional techniques such as drying grapes on racks (known as vin de paille, or straw wines). In addition, the Vinoble wine show in Jerez, held every two years to celebrate fortified, dessert and natural sweet wines, held its biggest ever gathering in 2008.

It enabled sweet wine producers from around the world to come out of the closet, and offer the wines to an ever more interested public. Whatever the style of traditionally made sweet wine, there are basically three ways to concentrate sugar in grapes: botrytis or noble rot, which pierces the skin of the grape and releases the water; freezing (for more on ice wines, see p58); or by drying the grapes either on the vine or after they’ve been picked.

There’s an additional category where the wine is fortified either before (vin de liqueur) or during (vin doux naturel) fermentation. The wines here fall into one of these four categories, with a few exceptions. One thing uniting them all, though (as well as their novelty) is longevity – thanks to the high sugar content. Consequently, none have recommended drinking windows, though, once open, consume within a month to appreciate them at their best.

Argentina

Zuccardi, Malamado, Mendoza 2004 ★★★

This fortified Malbec is ripe, fruity

and supple – a Port-style from

the Pampas. Its ageing in French

oak for two years has done

nothing to suppress its youthful

vigour. £12.70–£14.30; All, Coo, Evy

Australia

Campbell’s, Rutherglen Muscat, Victoria

★★★★★

The Muscats of Rutherglen are sadly

underrated. Sumptuously rich, fortified

wines, with plenty of rich, succulent

fruits, aged through a solera system.

£8.99; Odd, Wai

Turkey Flat Vineyards, Pedro Ximenez,

Barossa Valley, South Australia ★★★

A wine made from grapes raisined on the

vine, after the canes were cut. Fortified

and aged, the result is intense and fresh,

with crystallised orange and spices.

£12.99–£18.99 (375ml); AWO, Cmb, DrD,

Elx, FWC, Hai, Hax, Hed, Oli, Nid, Wai, You

Two Hands, Brilliant Disguise,

Barossa Valley, South Australia 2006 ★★★

A nod to Italy’s fine Moscatos. Nothing

complex: simply spritzy, light, floral,

grapey fruit. It’s not a classic sweet or

fortified wine, but deserves its place.

£8.99; All

Canada

Inniskillin, Oak-Aged Vidal Icewine,

Niagara Peninsula, Ontario 2006 ★★★

Classic Vidal aromas of mango – opulent

and exotic. The oak gives an extra texture

to the mouth to increase complexity.

£47.50; DrD, Lai, Wmb

Inniskillin, Sparkling Ice Wine,

Niagara Peninsula, Ontario 2003 ★★★

An extraordinary curiosity. A glamorous

little bottle, intensely sweet, and then

overcome by a rush of fine bubbles,

created by the Charmat method, which

captures the fizz from fermentation.

Serve it cold, with cardamom-flavoured

white chocolate. £45 (375ml); Wai

France

Château Jolys, Cuvée Jean, Jurancon 2005

★★★★★

A deserved winner of Decanter’s 2008

Regional France Sweet Wine Under £10

Trophy (the price has nudged up since the

awards). It is made from raisined, airdried

grapes, giving peachy fruit flavours

lightened by bright acidity. £10.99; Wai

Domaine Vial-Magneres, Al Tragou, Très

Vieux Rancio, Banyuls 1985 ★★★★★

Grenache-based, with 5% Carignan,

Banyuls is another revelation from the

south-west corner of France. It’s a wine

that’s built for the long haul – even after

24 years this has a full-body and textured

mid-palate, with notes of caramelised

orange peel, chocolate and almonds. Try it

with sea-salt chocolate, or a chocolate

sponge pudding. £32.67; Dyn, Ouf

Domaine Pouderoux, Vendange Tardive,

Maury 2002 ★★★★

Maury is known as the wine for

chocolate, and it’s particularly good with

chocolate desserts flavoured with

raspberry or redcurrant. There’s a delicate

tannic structure running through this

which prevents it from being merely

sweet and cloying. £9.99 (500ml); Wai

Domaine Rancy-Verdaguer, Rivesaltes

Ambre 1991 ★★★★

Macabeu with 5% of white Grenache

added, this is still astonishingly youthful,

with an intense and spicy mid palate and

a full, nutty toffee finish. POA; RdW

Château Aydie, Maydie Tannat,

Madiran 2006 ★★★

The name comes from a terrible pun

based on the fact that this wine is a good

match to rich chocolate dishes – hence

you ‘May Die’ having both. Look past the

pun; it’s an interesting fortified Tannat,

blending good texture and sweetness.

£11.95; WSo

Château de Mascaraas, Pacherenc du Vic

Bilh 2006 ★★★

Lively, full-bodied and uncomplicated,

these spicy, floral, minerally late-harvest

wines are the white appellation of Madiran,

made from Gros and Petit Manseng,

Arrufiac and Petit Corbu. 12.95, WSo

Greece

Hatzidakis, Vinsanto, Santorini, Greece

1999 ★★★★

Succulent, with roasted apricots and

toasted nuts, a fine-textured palate and

brisk darts of refreshing acidity. Grown on

Santorini’s volcanic soils by the island’s

leading winemaker; made from Assyrtiko

anad Aidani. £11.50 (375ml); Cdn

Anthemis, Muscat of Samos 2007 ★★★

From the island co-op of Samos, one of a

selection of very individual Muscats.

Anthemis was fortified, and then matured

in 500l French oak barriques. The result is

full of dried fruits and nuts, against a

background of caramelised orange.

£9.99; Wai

New Zealand

Forrest Estate, Late-Harvest Riesling

Marlborough 2007 ★★★

A rare Kiwi wine on this list, chosen

because (so far) it’s the country’s standout

late-harvest wine, from Marlborough

stalwart John Forrest. It’s a classically

Germanic, low-alcohol style (8.5%), with

plenty of apple fruit. £9.99 (375ml); Adn

Slovenia

Curin Prapotnik, Laski Rizling Prestige

Icewine, Podravje 2005 ★★★★★

This wine won Decanter’s 2008 Regional

Central European Sweet Wine Over £10

Trophy. It has vivid, tropical fruit

expression, with notes of pepper, lifted by

crisp acidity. £69.90; LVt

South Africa

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2002

★★★★

Recommended by Jane Austen in Sense

and Sensibility as a cure for a broken

heart, this wine (still in its traditional

bottle) comes from one of the Cape’s

historic wine estates. Very rich, it’s more

fat than fresh, showing honey backed by

a cleansing acid crunch. A rare treat.

£25 (500ml); F&M, Maj, Wai

Paul Cluver, Noble Late-Harvest Weisser

Riesling, Elgin 2007 ★★★★

The good Dr Cluver’s family businesscontinues to develop with the changing

times, but this NLH remains charmingly

unchanged. Dried apricot, bitter marmalade

and a hint of spice mark the immensely

rich, full body, yet it’s delicately sweet at

125g/l (grams per litre) of residual sugar.

£9.99 (375ml); DBy, Lay, Wai

Tierhoek, Straw Wine,

Piekenierskloof 2006 ★★★★

At 760m above sea level, this relatively

new project has the altitude for real

freshness. In this first vintage of the

straw wine, Adam Mason, the winemaker

at Klein Constantia (see above), lent a

hand. It’s rich and full-bodied, with plenty

of honeyed apricots. £14.95 (375ml); WSo

Tulbagh, Vin Pi Two, Western Cape

★★★★

Vin Pi – as in vin de paille, geddit? – is

made from old-vine Chenin, mainly from

the Swartland, the grapes dried then

fermented for up to a year in oak. Without

topping, the wine slowly oxidises. After

fermentation it is introduced to a solera,

started in 2003. This wine is succulent, at

286g/l of residual sugar, but also fresh

and lively, with notes of dried stone fruits,

honey and marzipan. One to watch,

especially as the solera ages. POA; RdW

Spain

Lustau, Moscatel de Chipiona, Jerez

★★★★★

There’s a little pot of gold in the corner of

most Sherry houses labelled Moscatel.

There’s isn’t much of it in the shops, and

it’s a forgotten treasure. Chipiona is the

town where the top Moscatel comes

from. Scented, succulent, and not

especially complicated but, like Sherry,

great value. £4.49 (500ml); Wai

Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega, Casta Diva

Moscatel, Alicante 2006 ★★★★

The Casta Diva wines are an exceptional,

honeyed expression of the Moscatel

grape. The winery has also revived

Fondillón, the traditional fortified red

made from Monastrell, with a minimum

of 10 years’ ageing. POA @ Fah, Hed, L&S

Telmo Rodriguez, Molino Real,

Mountain Wine, Malaga 2005 ★★★★

Rodriguez has been a pioneer in reviving

the old vineyards of Spain. This is the big

brother to the MR Moscatel, also from

Malaga, and shows it in the spicey, grapey

complexity. £23.99 (500ml); Adn

Bodegas Castano, Monastrell Dulce,

Yecla 2005 ★★★

A fine example of the revival of Spanish

winemaking, it’s a sumptuous balance of

sweet plum and cherry fruit, saved from

sweetness by a firm grip of tannin.

£12.95–£13.80 (500ml); But, Ult, WoI,

Jorge Ordoñez, Seleccion Especial no1

Moscatel, Malaga 2006 ★★★

Jorge Ordonez is one of the hottest

names in Spain at present. The late Alois

Kracher, Austria’s sweet wine guru,

worked with him on this project, where

the grapes were dried on the vines.

Supple, with honey and sweet spice, and

an acerbic undertone of bitter marmalade

oranges. £12.99 (375ml) Ind, L&W, Vik

SUGAR AND SPICE AND ALL THINGS ICE

What sets ice wine apart from other sweet wines is the freezing of the grapes. This concentrates the acidity, as well as the extract, and means that these wines can taste deliciously fresh as well as incredibly sweet – particularly true of German Rieslings.

In general, authorities are looking for temperatures of -8˚C before harvest can start. In essence, the grapes freeze on the vine and are picked first thing in the morning. But increasingly the calendar has been interrupted or postponed as the recent upheavals in climatic activity take their toll.

Canada has a much higher requirement for initial sweetness of its Icewines (written as one word in 630 grams per litre of sugar. This accounts for the fact that Canada’s Icewines are so remarkably sweet. All Canada’s Icewines are made from vitis vinifera grapes, with the exception of the arguably less appealing hybrid Vidal.

Ice wines are – or have been – made in Oregon, Michigan, Luxembourg, Croatia and Slovenia, among other spots. Croatia and Slovenia both won Golds at the 2008 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) while a Laski Riesling from Slovenia won the Over £10 Sweet Wine Regional Trophy (see above).

For producers, the warmer winters are a serious concern: Slavko Prapotnik, of the Trophy-winning winery, says ‘-7C is just not enough. It’s a prescribed minimum (in Slovenia) but not enough for quality ice wine.’ Does this apparent in winter pose a serious threat? Robert Gorjak, wine writer and Regional Chair for Slovenia in 2009 says:

‘I’m not sure if the recent phenomena is actually “global warming”. It could just be temporary. But the timeframe is shifting toward January, and there is less ice wine produced compared to 20 years ago. If the recent trend continues, Slovenian ice wines might become a rare commodity.’

He adds: ‘As picking occurs later, the grapes start to dry naturally. Greater care and selection is needed. As a result, the style is changing to a more concentrated character. Compromises are needed – optimal conditions of -14°C are rare. On the other hand, with better winemaking and better selection in vineyards, ice wines are getting more precise.

This has nothing to do with global warming and plenty to do with ageing in partially used oak barrels.’ Tony Aspler, author and DWWA Regional Chair for Canada, takes a

reasonably upbeat view: ‘We are blessed with a climate that can produce Icewine consistently, year after year. Not a single vintage has been missed since Ontario began making Icewine in 1983.

Last year was one of the coldest winters in the province, with below average temperatures and above average snow. So there is no real concern that Icewine is in danger from global warming.’

Aspler sees trouble coming from a different direction: ‘The real threat is the

incipient Chinese Icewine industry that can make the product far cheaper and capture Canada’s Far East market as aresult.’ He adds: ‘Given the escalating cost of Icewine, many consumers are opting for Special Select Late Harvest wines, a sweetness level just below Icewine, for half the price.’

It is undoubtedly true that the cost and scarcity of ice wines has made them luxury items, bought frequently for theirvalue rather than their quality. Just because the wine is harvested later in the year does not mean it is the best; novelty is not always the best policy. Still, Canada offers the adventurous Icewine drinker plenty of opportunities, with wines also made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

If winters do warm up, all is not lost. Just as grapes may be sprayed with botrytis spores to induce the infection, cryoextraction – freezing – will also do the trick for ice wines. The Sauternes producers such as Château d’Yquem make use of it. The romance may be lost, the complexity of flavour may disappear, but wine from frozen grapes will remain viable.

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