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Dessert and fortified wines

Categories: Expert guidance

Jane Parkinson on the rich possibilities offered by dessert and fortified wines

Jane ParkinsonFortified and dessert wines are woefully underrated, seriously under-utilised—and they’re not just for Christmas, either. However, while they deserve to be appreciated throughout the year, there can be no denying they make the perfect tipple as the nights draw in and we want delicious central heating for our bodies.

Even though they’re often grouped together, dessert and fortified wines have very distinct identities. After all, not all dessert wines are fortified (in fact most are not) whereas fortified wine can be anything from bone dry to fully sweet.

Dessert wines, or ‘stickies’ as they’re commonly known among wine folk, are usually made using grapes that already have a high proportion of sugar before their juice ferments into wine. Retaining this high level of sugar typically involves dehydrating the grapes and this is achieved in a whole host of ways, depending on the region in which the wine is produced.

One method is to deliberately leave the grapes hanging on the vine for too long so they shrivel up. These are labeled ‘late harvest’ and it’s a method widely practiced the world over. Another method is air-drying grapes after they have been picked.

Straw mats
This is especially popular across Italy—whether it’s for Tuscany’s luscious vin santo, or the tiny island of Pantelleria’s most famous export, passito di Pantelleria. France’s vin de paille is another gorgeous air-dried wine, ‘paille’ being French for straw, referring to the straw mats on which the grapes dry out.

Encouraging a ‘good’ disease called noble rot is a riskier business when it comes to shriveling up the grapes, as mismanagement could render a crop unusable. But it’s worth the risk, as it can make some of the world’s most beautiful and expensive dessert wines—sauternes being the famous example.

Ice wines, meanwhile, are some of the sweetest dessert wines of all and commonly derive from the cool climes of Germany, Austria or Canada. Here grapes are harvested when frozen, so the berry’s water has turned to ice, leaving the juice high in sugar.

Fortified wine is altogether different. Initially made like a table wine, a dollop of neutral-flavoured spirit is then added to boost the alcohol level. The timing of fortification has a massive impact on the final dryness of the wine because if it happens before all the sugar has converted into alcohol, it will end up sweet.

Fruitcake and spice
The most famous wine made using this method is the fruitcake and spice-flavoured wine port, which is made in Portugal’s Douro Valley using a range of local grapes, chief among them touriga nacional.

Whereas most port is red and sweet (white port can be dry), sherry is just the opposite, being white and, more often than not, dry. Sherry is made in Spain’s south-west corner, Jerez, and at this time of year the sherry styles of amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso really come into their own.

All three can be dry or sweet (so check the label) but what they deliver in varying degrees of nutty, salty, marmalade richness is nothing short of liquid umami, especially when dry.

Portugal’s island of Madeira makes one of the longest-lived and underrated fortified styles, its warm and humid cellars a crucial factor in achieving their hedonistic beauty, while in the southern hemisphere, the pleasure and depth of flavour found in a glass of Australia’s sweet Rutherglen muscat is hard to beat as far as fortified wines go—a liquid version of sticky toffee pudding.

Dessert and fortified styles are the gloriously decadent side to the world of wine and are worth exploring, not just at this time of year but throughout 2016. Now that really is a New Year’s resolution worth making.

Five of Borough Market’s best dessert and fortified wines
2007 De Bartoli passito di Pantelleria Bukkuram, Italy

Bedales, £34

Made using the highly fragrant grape zibibbo, this is a silky smooth combination of dried mango and apricot, drizzled in honey flavours. An absolute winner with mature or blue cheese.

2014 Astley late harvest, England
Wine Pantry, £18.99

A pretty and low alcohol (9.5%) dessert wine from Worcestershire with a distinctive flavour that’s both vanilla-sweet and elderflower fresh. Delicious with warm apple tart.

2008 Pelee Island Ontario ice wine, Canada
Bedales, £63.25

A classic example of Canada’s most famous wine made using a grape called vidal. Unctuous, luscious and seriously tropical with mango, pineapple and papaya flavours. Gorgeous with cheese or a tropical fruit dessert.

1996 Quevedo Colheita, Portugal
Borough Wines, £28

Colheita is a tawny port from a single vintage and this one has a velvety smooth texture, as well as toffee apple and nutty sweetness. The perfect armchair-sinking digestif or a decadent partner for a mince pie.

NV Delgado Zuleta Monteagudo palo cortado, Spain
Borough Wines, £20

Arguably the most versatile of sherry styles, this bone-dry Palo strikes a brilliant balance between the orange tang of youth and toasted hazelnut richness of age. Stunning with smoked meat, truffles or mushrooms.