Sweet Dessert Wines For Long Winter Nights

Working the Rotary Wine and Fine Food Festival last month, I was reminded all over again why I love the world of wine.

There were new wines to discover and old familiar ones that I hadn’t seen in a while. And the same was true for the people I met and poured for.

For those of you who came, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did; and for those who didn’t make it … plan to come next year.

I poured a selection of Portuguese and Spanish wines, but also had the chance to taste several from the vendor at the table adjoining mine. One wine that caught my interest at the beginning of the evening was a sweet dessert wine from Spain, Bodegas Castano’s 2004 Dulce C, made from the monastrell grape.

This wine attracted me for two reasons: First, it is always interesting to try wines made from a single grape, as many popular wines are a mix of several different grape juices (for example, a Bordeaux likely includes juice from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, as well as perhaps Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Carmenère or Petit Verdot).

And secondly, while Portugal is famous for its sweet and fortified (more on this later in the column) Port and Madeira wines, I had never seen or tasted a Spanish sweet, fortified wine, other than Sherry.

I tasted it prior to the show and was convinced that it was a hit and told the vendor so, predicting that he would run out of it … and, indeed, it was his first to be finished, with people coming by, asking for “the port” that friends had recommended they try.

I bought two bottles at the end of the evening and am enjoying a glass in front of the fire as I write this.

It is a deep purple colour and thicker than regular wine. When you draw in a breath, you smell a perfumed fusion of deep dark fruit, leather and a hint of eucalyptus, as though all of a warm, sweet, summer has been distilled into liquid form and bottled.

It rolls across your tongue like dark cherry silk, but leaves a lovely, slightly tangy and abrasive finish after you swallow, which keeps it from being too syrupy and sweet.

These are the characteristics that attract me to good dessert wines and they seem to taste especially delicious on cold winter nights.

This is a fortified, port-style wine. Like Ports and their cousins, Madeira wines, they are wines to which additional grape-based alcohol (like brandy) is added during the fermentation process. This kills the yeast, stopping the fermentation process before it can consume all the sugar in the grape juice.

The result is a sweet wine, with a higher level of alcohol (15 to 20 per cent) than regular wine.

This process is most famously used to make Port wines, but also the equally fine and remarkable dessert wines of Madeira (I’ll devote a later column to those) as well as Marsala, Sherry and Vermouth. And it yielded this memorable Dulce C, which you may be able to find, at least for the next several weeks, at the Whitehorse Liquor Store, which is now featuring remaining wines from the wine show.

I would encourage you try a fortified dessert wine with a dinner this winter. Serve it at room temperature, in small glasses (seven ounce or smaller) with a sweet, fruit-based dessert.

One of my favourites (and a favourite of my guests, I’m pleased to say) is baked pears in maple syrup. The recipe is dead easy:

• Cut into quarters and core one unripe (hard) bosc or other pear per person, leaving the skin on.

• Put them in a Pyrex or ceramic baking dish, along with about a teaspoon of butter per pear and drizzle them with enough (real) maple syrup to cover the bottom of the dish.

• Sprinkle a little nutmeg on top.

• Bake in the oven at 400F for about 20 minutes, spooning the syrup over the pears every five minutes, until the pears are soft, but still hold their shape.

• Serve with a glass of fortified dessert wine (I prefer Madeira, but a Port or this Monastrell would work well, too) and blue cheese.

Taste the wine first, then the dessert, then back to the wine, then the blue cheese and back to the wine, and then back to the dessert.

Look for the contrasts in the tastes between the dessert, the wine and the cheese. What do you taste in the wine after you have tasted the pears? How does the cheese pair with the wine? What does your tongue experience when you follow the dessert with the cheese?

These tasting experiences are part of the magic of the world of fortified wines and a wonderful, sensual experience with friends and/or someone special and a Yukon winter night.

Happy tasting.

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