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Sweet wines are sadly overlooked, misunderstood, and maligned. Perhaps uncertain of the wines' place at the table, we refer to them as dessert wines, as if to pair with cake or pastry; in truth there can be some inspired pairings. But when the sweetness would serve as a counterpoint to savory cheese, delegating the wine to confections seems a missed opportunity. Furthermore, those of lighter body and bright acid, make for a lovely aperitif, with fruit, or to accompany foie gras. With time in the cellar – and these can age as well as any wine – the sense of the sweetness evolves into aromatic (and textural) complexity. One no longer perceives sugar to be the root of the wines, but an element which buoys the rest of the palette (and palate).
Below you’ll find aged sweet wines of all varieties: Vino Liquoroso and Passito from Italy; Port, Malaga, and Setubual from the Iberian Peninsula; German TBA Riesling and Scheurebe; and France’s stunning Sauternes and late-harvested Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. While we can sing the praises of these wines, New York poet Marie Ponsot captures their magic in her poem Pourriture Noble, (speaking of d’Yquem) excerpted below:
“Well, he rode home cocky
& bullied the grapes into the vats
rot & all, spoiled grapes, too old,
too soon squeezed dry.
The wine makes.
The wine makes thick, gold-colored,
& pours like honey.
We try it. Fantastic!
not like honey, punchy,
you've never drunk anything like it--
refreshing, in a rush
over a heat that slows your throat--
wanting to keep that flavor
stuck to the edge of your tongue
where your taste is, keep it
like the best bouquet you can remember
of sundown summer & someone coming
to you smiling. The taste has odor
like a new country, so fine
at first you can't take it in
it's so strange. It's beautiful
& believe me you love to go slow.”
The best we can determine is that a “Vino Liquoroso” is made the same way as Port: alcohol is added to sweet, partially-fermented wine; fermentation is thus halted and the wine remains sweet, or at least off-dry. “Sciactrac” is surely an older version of the currently used and official term “Sciacchetra”, which is a passito-style wine of the Cinque Terre; the grapes are partially dried on the vine or on straw mats, and then pressed to make an intense and rich wine with varying degrees of sweetness.
The most famous of the sweet wines, Sauternes (and Barsac), represent the apotheosis of the category. They are lusciously honeyed, rich, elegant, and long-lived. The appellation’s position where the cool Ciron River empties into the warmer Gironde estuary produces morning mists which encourages the growth of Pourriture Noble, or Noble Rot. In this mesoclimate the fungus Botrytis Cinerea shrivels the late-harvested Semillon and Sauvignon grapes, which are then made into wines blessed with sublime sweetness and glorious complexity, while maintaining a spine of acidity ensuring freshness and balance. With cellaring, the wines build up layer upon layer of aromatic and textural complexity. Foie Gras and blue cheeses are classic pairings with age Sauternes.
Quarts de Chaume is the most notable of the sweet wine appellations of Anjou – so named, as it was the prime quarter of Chaume. (The apocryphal story of the name deriving from the local authority, the Seigneur de la Guerche’s, entitlement to ¼ of the wine from each vintage, is certainly a bit more poetic.) The appellation is located 3 miles north of Rochefort-Sur-Loire across four low, flat-topped ridges. The plateau behind the village protects the vines from all but southern winds creating a warmer micro-climate. Schistous soils with high iron content produce wines with power and longevity. Quarts de Chaume should either be drunk very young (it makes for a lovely aperitif) or with a good deal of age. It is said to reach its peak at 10-15 years of age when it pairs beautifully with blue cheeses or a poulet a la crème.
Though Quarts de Chaume has more fame, it should be noted Bonnezeaux received A.O.C. designation 4 years earlier in 1961. The vineyards consist of three southwest facing, gently sloping hillsides in Thouarcé near a bend in the Layon River whose morning mists encourage botrytis. The soils are schist, sandstone, with traces of quartz. Only made in good years, the yields are quite low and the grapes picked very ripe preferably with noble rot. In less satisfactory vintages, the wines are sold off as Coteaux du Layon. The wines have less flamboyant sweetness than Quarts de Chaumes offset by a hint of peppery spiciness. They will typically be ready at 5-10 years of age but improve for decades.
Coteaux de l’Aubance, named for the tiny Aubance River is due south of Angers and bordered by Coteaux du Layon to the west. The soils are clayey silt over schist, producing wines of more charm than power. They share a familial resemblance to the Bonnezeaux in as much as they are harvested late, but are a bit lighter and nervier. These are the perfect weight for an aperitif or accompany cheese at the end of the meal. John McIlwain
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