Put a cork in that barrel of guilt, and pour a glass of something sweet

OUR JUST DESSERTS

November 05, 1995|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Dessert wine after a fine meal cannot be defended upon moral, political or dietary grounds.

It's a wasteful extravagance and a shameless indulgence. Excess sugar on top of superfluous calories. Extra alcohol after a heady dinner wine. A vice that encourages other vices -- such as the $10 cigar that seems to cry "smoke me, smoke me" the moment the cork pops out of a bottle of vintage port.

It's bad for us, which is perhaps what makes it so good. What was the phrase Sally Bowles used in "Cabaret"? Ah, yes, "divine decadence."

Dessert wines are a return to one of the great pleasures of childhood -- satisfying the craving for something sweet. And while some of us might contend our tastes have grown up since then, none of us ever hummed a tune called "Kisses Drier Than Wine."

The most conspicuous sign that Americans are beginning to recognize wine as a worthy dessert comes in the resurgence of (( the classic port-and-cigar combination. Perhaps it's a sign of Republican resurgence or maybe it's just a healthy overthrow of oppressive guilt, but stogies are hot these days. And where they go, port is sure to follow.

But even if cigars aren't your style, there are many choices for the wine enthusiast who wants to keep sipping after the main course is whisked away.

Port

This is port season.

Oh, some of us will consent to sip a 1948 Taylor Fladgate or 1963 Graham's even in the middle of July, but all the air conditioning in the world can't make port as perfect as it would be with the trees bare and a hint of snow on the way.

Vintage port is the star attraction of port -- the sweetest and noblest of the breed.

Time is very good to vintage port, stripping some of the baby fat and bringing out the complexity in these thick, grapy, tannic brutes. But the Almighty will not strike you down if you open a young vintage port and actually enjoy it.

Among the recent -- in port terms -- fine vintages are 1963 (ready), 1970 (ready), 1977 (getting there), 1983 (getting there), 1985 (charming from its release), 1991 (could use a decade) and 1992 (ditto).

The best recent release is the 1992 Taylor Fladgate, which is sheer perfection but almost impossible to find since Robert M. Parker Jr. gave it a score of 100. But a 1991 Graham's or 1991 Quinta do Vesuvio would provide a more-than-adequate consolation prize.

While vintage port gets the lion's share of critical attention, a well-aged tawny port can be just as sublime. These wines are sweet, but less so than vintage port, and could actually be a better match with a fine cigar than vintage port.

There are many fine examples on the market, but one that hits all my buttons is the 20-year-old Taylor Fladgate Porto ($44). From its powerful, smoky, spicy aroma to its smooth-as-silk, roasted-nut flavors, this wine is a total delight.

Sauternes

Don't take my word about the merits of Sauternes. Consult Thomas Jefferson.

"This is the best white wine of France [except Champagne and Hermitage]," wrote the future president and then secretary of state in 1791. He not only put his money behind that advice, he put George Washington's, too. In 1790, he placed an order for 30 dozen bottles for his president and 10 dozen for himself.

Sauternes is actually sweeter today than it was in Jefferson's time, because its makers now take full advantage of the famous village's legendary fogs. These mists favor the development of the "noble rot" botrytis, which shrivels and concentrates the grape's sugars while imparting an exquisite taste of its own.

Characteristic flavors include apricot, pineapple, hazelnut, marzipan and tropical fruit. Wines from the best chateaux age marvelously -- better than 100 years for the greatest vintages of Chateau d'Yquem.

Unfortunately, Chateau d'Yquem no longer sells for the 20-24 sous it fetched in Jefferson's time. With the 1983 vintage, Yquem broke the $100 barrier and now sells for about $200 upon release.

There are several excellent chateaux in Sauternes and the neighboring village of Barsac that come close to the quality of Yquem at a much more reasonable price. They include Climens, Coutet, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Raymond-Lafon, Rabaud-Promis, Guiraud, Suduiraut and Rieussec (though I cannot recommend the fat, awkward 1990 from this chateau).

The finest recent vintages are 1983, 1986 and 1988. Both 1989 and 1990 produced many fine Sauternes, but overall they fall short of classic quality.

Germany

Nobody does nectar like the Germans.

There's an element of the miraculous in the fact that the world's northernmost important wine country produces some of its ripest, sweetest wines -- but it does. That miracle might occur only two or three years out of a decade, but when it does the results are sheer ecstasy.

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