Dessert wines are another European tradition under-appreciated by Americans, and Monterey County makes some great ones.
Thursday, February 3, 2000
It''s sweet, and it''s expensive. Those are two big reasons why dessert wines don''t get the respect they deserve, at least on this side of the Atlantic. In England, gentlemen retire to the salon after dinner for a glass of port and a fine cigar. In Germany, the whole family will down a good Trockenbeerenauslese with their apple strudel, and folks along the Mediterranean love a cold tumbler of muscat with their cheese and fruit.
But in America? It''s still a rarity to see dessert wines offered on a restaurant menu, although port is standard at better bars. And we''re the losers for it.
"There''s very little dessert wine made in this country period," says Ken Rauh, general manager at A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row. "People think that after a certain age they''re ''beyond'' drinking wine with residual sugars. It''s a shame. I''ve yet to meet one person who doesn''t enjoy it, when I give it to them in the right setting."
"I forget about it myself a lot, except for port," admits winemaker Cara Hane, the woman who makes dessert wine for Jekel Vineyards. "And when we skip making it for a year, like we did last year when the harvest was poor, hardly anyone notices--even our distributors."
But as Americans continue to extend their culinary range, sucking up hummus, rolling curried beef in their injara and growing lemon grass in their herb gardens, they''re also coming around to the idea of dessert wines. And local wineries are responding, with some fine tipplings available right here in Monterey County.
It''s a growing field, but not yet a big one. Just five county wineries make port or dessert wine: Jekel, Paraiso Springs, Monterey Vineyard, Ventana and Chateau Julien. When Baywood Cellars moves its wine-making operation into the county in the near future, they''ll make it six. Already, about 40 percent of the state''s Riesling grapes, used in the most popular variety of dessert wine, are grown in Monterey County.
Winter makes a fine time to develop a taste for dessert wine, as its heavy sweetness pairs so well with the season''s richer desserts. Try Monterey Vineyard''s souzao port with a wedge of Stilton, or a slice of chocolate gateau. Or Paraiso Spring''s late harvest Pinot Noir with a baked cheesecake; Ventana''s muscat d''orange poured over poundcake; Jekel''s late harvest Riesling with flan.
"Just don''t serve a dessert that''s sweeter than the wine," cautions Rauh. Too much sugar in the food will overwhelm the wine, and when you''re paying $20 to $30 or more for a half-bottle, you want to taste what you''ve bought.
So why is the stuff so expensive? Easy--it''s harder to make. The grapes must stay on the vine longer, to allow their sugars to come up and the botrytis, or "noble rot," to develop. Fewer grapes, percentage-wise, make the final cut, and wineries make commensurately smaller quantities. Jekel''s Cara Hane, for example, only has enough late harvest Riesling from her ''99 vintage to make 300 cases of wine for the entire year. No wonder it costs $25 a half-bottle.
Jekel Vineyards was the first Mon-terey County winery to move into the dessert wine field, bottling its first vintage 20 years ago. Right now they''re selling the ''97 late harvest Riesling, the only dessert wine they make. It has a deep yellow color and is buttery smooth, with a soft sweetness and ripe fruit very much in keeping with the Germanic tradition. You can taste the orange blossom honey on your tongue as it slips and slides its way down your throat. This wine is only available at the winery in Greenfield.
Up the road in Soledad--actually, across the river and a bit south of Soledad--Paraiso Springs makes three dessert wines, all of them outstanding.
The souzao port is their biggest seller, probably because more people are familiar with port than other dessert wines. Port, not surprisingly, comes from Portugal, where 10 different varietals may legally be used to make it. The souzao grape is one of the most popular. Port is often non-vintage, meaning that grapes from different years, as well as varieties, may be blended together in one bottle. Paraiso Springs'' souzao port is a deep violet-red color, with a syrupy texture and soft berry taste. It''s a medium-heavy port, delicious and accessible, at $25 a half-bottle.
The Paraiso Springs ''97 late harvest Johannisberg Riesling, at $25, is simply delightful. The initial sweetness is quickly followed by a welcome acidity, unusual in this variety, making it less "sweet" than most late harvest Rieslings. It fairly sparkles in your mouth, and brings a smile to the lips.
Most unusual of Paraiso''s offerings is the ''96 late harvest Pinot Noir, which they''ve been making for only four years. Less sweet than a port, yet without the acidity of the winery''s late harvest Riesling, the late harvest Pinot Noir is delicious with chocolate-covered strawberries, according to the winery''s communications director Cathy Weidemann. "Also with dry cheesecake, or anything chocolate," she advises. "You don''t want to pair it with anything too sweet." The wine is, she adds, "best poured over your Significant Other."
Weidemann says just five or six winemakers in the world produce this wine, including their own winemaker, Philip Zorn, who also releases a late harvest pinot under his own Napa label, "Tria."
The Paraiso Springs late harvest Riesling and Pinot Noir are only available at the winery, but the port can be found at A Taste of Monterey. Paraiso Springs also produces a lower-priced late harvest Riesling under the Taste of Monterey label, sold only at the Cannery Row shop. The ''95 is currently available at $18. It has the acidity of the Paraiso Springs ''97 late harvest Riesling, but has a nuttier flavor, with dried apricot dominant rather than ripe fruit.
Ever since The Monterey Vineyard lost its Gonzales winery, its wines can only be tasted at specialty shops such as A Taste of Monterey. The winery makes a limited release souzao port which, at 18.5 percent alcohol, packs a wallop. At $13 a half-bottle, Ken Rauh considers it a "good value," although it pales a bit before the Paraiso Springs.
Both ports, however, are very accessible, and would make fine introductions to the world of dessert wines. "I wish more Merlot and Chardonnay drinkers would branch out and try port," Rauh mourns. "It''s still a small group that seeks it out."
Finally, Ventana Vineyards steps up to the plate with a tasty oddity, the ''97 Muscat D''Orange, sold at a very reasonable $12 a half-bottle. It''s not technically a dessert wine, as that label is bestowed only on wines with at least 9 percent residual sugars and the Ventana has just 5 percent. But it tastes and looks like a not-too-sweet dessert wine, and you sure wouldn''t want to serve it with chicken in mushroom sauce. So ignore the label that says "white table wine"--just a legality.
"It''s such a flavorful wine that getting it up to 9 percent residuals would make it too cloying," says Karla Hull, who works in the winery''s sales and marketing department.
The orange muscat grape hails from the area of Orange, in the south of France. It''s found a good home in Monterey''s cool climate, and Ventana started to grow it here for use in blending, but then discovered it tasted pretty good on its own. Don''t confuse the winery''s sweet, tropical fruit-rich muscat d''orange with its regular Orange Muscat white wine, made from the same grapes, but picked before botrytis sets in. It''s a different animal.
So lay a log on the fire, spoon out the ice cream, slice up the genoise and pour a nice, chilled glass of Monterey County dessert wine. Or you can skip the hard food, and just drink your dessert.