I recently introduced my dad to port, the rich dessert wine from Portugal. He resembled Winnie the Pooh as he licked his chops and rubbed his belly. "It’s like nectar," he said raising his glass for another dram. "Delicious. How come I haven’t tried this before?"
Take it easy, pop; this stuff will sneak up on you at 20-plus percent alcohol by volume. But it’s true. Savory port and other well-made dessert wines like Sauternes, late-harvest and ice wines, Tokay and Madeira cause nonbelievers to spin 180 degrees at first sip.
Fortified wines like port and Madeira include added brandy, which acts as a preservative, initially for long-haul ocean transport, while Sauternes, Tokay and late-harvest wines are intentionally designed to include overly ripe, raisiny fruit that translates to sweeter, nectarlike wines. Either way, you now have dessert in a glass.
Some dessert wines even incorporate infusions of other fruit like blackberries and raspberries, which take the wine in another direction. Chaucer’s Cellars from venerable central California producer Bargetto makes a positively luscious raspberry wine that is rich and robust but not cloyingly sweet. I have served this bottle as a simple dessert course several times, sometimes on its own, or with crème brûlée or sweet roasted nuts. When no one’s looking, I’ll even pour a dab on a scoop of vanilla ice cream. A 375 ml bottle retails for about $15 at Whole Foods in Tempe.
This holiday and dinner party season, keep a couple of dessert wines on hand. They add a pleasant, unexpected twist on the sweetest part of any meal. Here are a few to consider:
Smith Woodhouse 2003 Vintage Port. This year was very good to the region, as many of the top port producers bottled a vintage variety. The grapes from this boutique producer were sourced from a small 25-acre vineyard in the Rio Torto Valley, an region within Portugal’s Douro appellation known for top-quality fruit. This bottle shows incredible length and structure in a style somewhat drier than most. Sip on its own or with nuts and blue cheeses. $60.
Bonny Doon Viognier Doux 2004.
Just about everyone agrees that Bonny Doon creates fun, delicious and irreverent wines and doesn’t follow trends — the vineyard sets them. This tropical, aromatic wine is simply breathtaking with its creamy coconut spice and lush summer fruit flavors. Think Charlize Theron walking the red carpet. It’s beautiful, sexy and meant to be enjoyed with special company.
Blandy’s Alvada Madeira, Five Year Old. Dispel your preconceived ideas about Madeira. Yes, grandma used to swill the cheap stuff along with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, but the one-of-a-kind wine produced on the tiny island of the same name off the Iberian peninsula has come a long way. Alvada’s rich, nutty flavor and higher acidity makes it an ideal match for caramel-based desserts, pecan pie and strong aged cheeses such as manchego. $15 for 500 ml bottle.
Graham’s 20-Year Aged Tawny Port. Here’s the payoff if you forgo vintage prices for tawny (blended) port. This is where buttered almond, golden raisins and orange marmalade meet — in liquid form. Velvety rich, aromatic and delicious. This is what turned Papa Bear into Winnie the Pooh. $53.
Holiday celebrations scream for sparkling wine and champagne. Mumm Napa, the California arm of the famed G.H. Mumm champagne family, fills the void in a big way this year. Its Brut Prestige shows wonderfully well with full fruit flavors that speak of Napa at a price that leaves money on the table for other holiday ingredients. Nearly a 50-50 split between pinot noir and chardonnay, the wine is versatile to boot. Serve with turkey, seafood, roasted veggies, you name it. $18.