No sour faces over these, sweet, yet complex, wines

VINTAGE POINT

March 08, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Sweet wines have a bad reputation in this country, and no wonder.

For many Americans, their first taste of alcohol came in the form of a cheap, sugary "soda pop" wine such as Annie Green Spring -- most likely guzzled illicitly as a teen-ager and promptly regurgitated.

There was no sophistication about such wines. That came when one learned to enjoy the subtle nuances of dry wines and the way they enhanced the taste of food. Once the wine bug bites, it's not unusual for an aspiring connoisseur to shun the sweet stuff entirely for years.

But sweet wine doesn't have to be insipid and cloying. The best are just as complex and aesthetically satisfying as the finest dry wines. Many serious enthusiasts wouldn't consider holding a dinner party without offering the guests a sweet wine with the dessert course.

The best-known fine dessert wines include France's Sauternes, Germany's luscious rieslings and California's often inspired imitations of both. Vintage port is famous, and cream sherry is well-known because of highly advertised brands such as Harvey's.

The most famous dessert wines can be sinfully expensive, with price tags such as the $200 charged for a good vintage of Sauternes' Chateau d'Yquem. But beyond the best-known dessert wines there are a wealth of other choices from all over the world. In many cases, they offer superb value.

Great dessert wines are made by a variety of methods.

Some are made from grapes that are naturally sweet at normal levels of ripeness, and fermentation is stopped before the wine can go fully dry. These include Italy's lightly sweet Moscato d'Asti, a refreshing, pretty wine that usually reaches only about 7 percent alcohol.

Other wines are made from grapes that have been attacked by bortryis, the "noble rot," which shrivels the berries and superconcentrates the sugar and acidity while adding new layers of complexity to the flavor. These wines include Sauternes, German beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, the great sweet wines of the Loire Valley and the "selections des grains nobles" wines of Alsace. Botrytis-affected wines have also been made with great success in the United States, Australia and other countries.

Some dessert wines are superconcentrated by other means. In Italy and other Mediterranean countries, grapes are picked and then allowed to shrivel in the sun. In Germany and Canada, grapes are allowed to hang on the vine so long they freeze, yielding the legendary wines the Germans know as "eiswein."

Another important method of making sweet wine is fortification. Neutral spirits are added to the juice while it is still fermenting, raising the alcohol level to the 18 percent to 22 percent level, where the yeast stop converting sugar to alcohol. Among the wines made this way are port, sherry and Madeira.

All of these methods can yield exceptional wines. These are some of the fascinating dessert wines you can taste when you venture off the well-trod path:

* 1992 d'Arenberg Noble Riesling, McLaren Vale ($11.49/half bottle). Australia isn't the first country you think of when seeking TC a fine dessert riesling, but this nobly rotten wine is superb. Its decadently intense sweetness is balanced by fine acidity, and the botrytis mold has lent its characteristic flavors of apricot, baked apple and spices.

* Commandaria St. John ($11). Made in Cyprus, Commandaria is one of the oldest wines in existence. It is also one of the most underrated. Made by drying grapes on mats of straw, it is a honey-sweet, caramel- and apricot-flavored, tawny wine with a complex mix of spice flavors including nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. It represents a superb value.

* 1993 Ridge Zinfandel Essence ($21/half bottle). Ridge winemaker Paul Draper has made several fine sweet zinfandels in the past, but this new release is a stylistic breakthrough. This complex red dessert wine combines black pepper, raspberry, blackberry and spice flavors in a surprisingly racy package. The moderate sweetness and the brisk acidity balance out perfectly, with the alcohol holding at a surprisingly restrained 13.4 percent. It is simply an incredible wine that other California winemakers ought to study.

* Seppelt Para Tawny Port ($21). Australia makes some of the world's finest fortified dessert wines. Para Port, with its lush flavors of baked apple, honey and spices, is one of the best. This long, moderately sweet nectar would make a wonderful cold weather dessert -- preferably served with roasted nuts.

* Blandy's 5-Year-Old Boal Madeira ($20). Madeira is a fascinating throwback to a bygone era. It's a fortified wine, just like port and sherry, but less well-known. Today it is more likely to be found in a sauce than a glass, but during the 18th and 19th centuries, Madeira was the most popular wine among the elite in East Coast port cities from Savannah to Baltimore. This premium bottling -- a step above the Madeira you'd use in cooking -- is a lightly sweet, gripping wine with flavors of oranges and spice.

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