Few beverages are as misunderstood as those we traditionally drink after a meal. Even mention of dessert wines, sweet wines, or digestifs conjures up almost comically antiquated images of monocle- and ascot-clad men of means retiring to the library after a baroque meal of endangered species’ flesh, smoking pipes and divvying up their interests on large maps of the colonies.
Of course, like most stereotypes, the post-prandial-drinks one has precious little to do with reality. And fortunately, the popularity of these often sweet treats seems to be on the rise. It only makes sense: Port and ice wine and Cognac and the rest are often among the most deliriously delicious you can drink.
This is a great time of year to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, too many people still adhere to the erroneous belief that sweet wines and digestifs are best consumed in the cooler months. And while no one could ever really argue the almost magical warming qualities of, say, a great glass of Port, there’s absolutely no reason at all to avoid them even as the mercury climbs.
Last September, I spent a week in the Douro Valley, the home of the grapes that, by an almost alchemy-like process, are turned into Port. It’s hot over there, the sun slashing down from seemingly right overhead. And yet I had no problem drinking more Port than I ever had before. And here’s the thing: It was perfect, even in the midday sun. (Especially when just the slightest bit chilled...which more people should do on this side of the Atlantic. But that’s another column for another time.)
Here, then, are some of my favorite sweet wines and digestifs right now. They’re all perfect both on their own or after a meal. No matter what the temperature is outside.
Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine 2008 (Niagara Peninsula, Canada)
This is a gorgeous shimmering gold color, with aromas that float around the glass even before you get your nose in it. Scents of yellow and white peaches, nectarines, mandarin orange, and yellow-plum pudding are complicated by a hint of smoke, spice, and flutters of honey suckle and honey. On the palate, flavors of orange liqueur and lemon verbena are given vivacity with gorgeous acidity, all of this carried on a texture that’s nothing short of silken.
Inniskillin Vidal “Gold” Ice Wine 2007 (Niagara Peninsula, Canada)
Lemon creme and lemon verbena combine with kaffir lime leaf and hints of lemongrass on this subtly aromatic, wildly complex nose. These turn to flavors of spicy, concentrated orange and kumquat notes, as well as passion fruit preserves. What a joy to drink: Unique, expressive, and delicious.
Kracher Auslese Cuvee 2008 (Burgenland, Austria)
Aromas of honey and tahini, cooked rice, and other ineffably complex, unexpectedly savory notes set this apart immediately and demand your attention. On the palate, mushrooms cooked down in honey, a lingering sense of spiciness, and subdued acidity that still brings the wine freshness mingle with apricot skin and lemon-blossom honey. Exceptionally interesting and thoroughly successful.
W and J Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port 2009 (Portugal)
Beguiling glass-staining color, all deep purple and bruise-like. Beautiful. On the nose, a notably spicy aroma leads the way to notes of crushed dark cherries, black raspberries and blackberries, baker’s chocolate, and cafe mocha. These turn to long, concentrated, layered flavors of plum pudding, black-cherry cobbler and pipe tobacco, hints of cedar, and minerals, and evolve to a finish that turns a bit exotic with flashes of sandalwood, cardamom, and scorched earth alongside the berry fruit and baking spices. Excellent now, this will continue to evolve for another two decades.
Limoncello di Capri (Italy; Organic)
Beautiful floral-honey note to the bright, expressive, fresh-lemon nose. The alcohol lends it a hint of spice, as well as subtle white licorice aromas, and the palate shows a velvety, viscous texture. The initial sweetness, which follows throughout, is balanced out by acidity and that alcohol spiciness. Great alone, or with a baked ricotta or a not-terribly-sweet cannoli.
Brian Freedman is a food, wine, and travel writer and wine consultant. He writes for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, Philadelphia Style Magazine, and the blog www.UncorkLife.com for Wine Chateau, among others. For more information on his work, or to contact him regarding consulting or speaking, please visit www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com. You may also read his new blog, The Food, Drink & Travel Report at www.FDTreport.com.