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Wine Cellar Edition — Sweet Wines for Valentines

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Illustration by Juan Francisco Adaro,

By Bruce Collier


I once managed a small wine store. The owners (a married couple) were wine enthusiasts, with a small library of wine books that I was encouraged to study when business got slow. We held weekly wine tastings, allowing me to taste and compare hundreds of wines. I picked up a little knowledge.


Valentine’s Day is about showing your sweetheart love and care. Wine has all the romantic bases covered. Unlike distilled spirits, wine hums on a lower frequency.


Whether you spend February 14 dining at a restaurant or enjoying a romantic home-cooked dinner, wine offers a perfect ending, even if it played no part at all up to that point. Here are four examples of what are called “dessert” wines, sweet as love but less intoxicating.


All were purchased locally. All were served chilled (one to two hours in the fridge).


The first is from Hungary—Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 2007 ($37.99 for 500 ml), 12.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Tokaji (Toe-KYE) is legendary as Louis XV’s gift to his girlfriend Madame de Pompadour. Other fans included Peter the Great and Queen Victoria. It is credited with life-saving qualities and, yes, it’s reputedly an aphrodisiac.


Made from Furmint and Harslevelu grapes that have been allowed to mold—a special “noble rot” called Botrytis cinerea—this wine has 12-15 percent residual sugar. It’s a rich light amber color, with a thick, almost oily body. The initial slightly musty scent gives way to aromas of fruit syrup, pear and peach. As the chill subsides, there’s more body and a citrus acidity to balance the sweetness.


Now to Germany’s Mosel region (in the store’s German section, those are the green bottles; the brown ones hail from the Rheingau), for Eiswein (“ice wine”), Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Noble House 2008, ($24.99 for 375 ml), 9 percent ABV. Late-harvested Riesling grapes, allowed to freeze (but not to rot), are pressed when frozen, separating the concentrated (and sweet) juice from the ice. It’s a chancy, difficult process that translates itself into rarer (and pricier) wines.


Eiswein is a darker straw color, with a honey-pear nose. It’s full bodied, and tastes of apricot, papaya, ripe nectarine, and honey, with a caramelized upside-down cake finish. It’s a sweetie, but with enough acidic tang to keep you reaching for another sip.


You may know the name “Sauternes” from the labels of brown bag wines on the bottom shelf at the supermarket. Forget those. Sauternes is a place in Bordeaux that produces some of the world’s most famous (and prized) sweet wines. I got a “little” vintage from one of the well known producers, a Petit Guiraud 2012 ($18.99 for 375 ml), 13.5 percent ABV.


The grapes of Sauternes are principally Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Allowed to (nobly) rot, the grapes produce a relatively higher-alcohol wine that can last in bottle for many decades, maturing from pale straw color to reddish amber. At five years old, this one has pineapple acidity, with a full body. As it lost its chill, rich honey, peach and mango preserves slowly crept up.


My introduction to Sauternes started back at the wine store, when a customer let me taste a glass of Chateau d’Yquem 1976 he’d just bought for $50 (375 ml). It remains the most memorable wine I’ve ever tasted. That same bottle of the 1976 is now selling for upwards of $400.


I finished up in Portugal with my only red—Croft’s Reserve Tawny Port ($19.99 for 750 ml), 20 percent ABV. Port wine is named for Oporto, an Atlantic seaport. The area is home to a legion of port “firms,” many of which sport British names. The Brits acquired a taste for port in the 18th century and have made it into a near-religious after-dinner ritual. The French, by contrast, like it before a meal.


The firms buy the wine from area growers and blend, age and bottle it according to their own “house” standards. Port employs five principal grapes, and is “fortified,” meaning that brandy is added during fermentation. This halts the conversion of sugar into alcohol, resulting in a sweet, long-lasting wine.


Croft’s Tawny is deep red with a brownish edge and the scent of raisin, strawberry preserves, and grape peel. The mouth feel is jammy and silky. I tasted blackberry, prune, dried cherries and blood orange marmalade. The wood it’s aged in adds a short tannic bite at the finish. This wine is hard to stop sipping, so my advice would be to start with it (like the French), cook with it (it makes a great deglazed pan sauce for sautéed pork or duck), and finish with it (like the British).


Port is ideal with the English bleu cheese Stilton. Add raisins, walnuts and cream crackers and you’ll want to binge watch Downton Abbey. With luck, you won’t watch alone.

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