Muscadelles and muscats are among the only wines capable of holding their own with the richness and weight of chocolate desserts. Photo: Marina Oliphant
"I don't like sweet wine." Sound familiar? For reasons dating back to the Barossa Pearl era it's considered sophisticated in some circles to drink only dry wines. Fine. That means more sweet stuff for the rest of us, sommeliers and winemakers included, to enjoy with dessert. Or, as the case may be, instead of dessert.
"For me, a dessert wine is the dessert," says Sydney-based wine consultant Sophie Otton. "If I am having a dessert wine I prefer to accompany it, if anything, with cheese."
Leanne De Bortoli, whose family makes Australia's benchmark sweet white wine, Noble One, agrees. "I prefer having sweet dessert wines on their own, as they are a dessert in themselves," she says. "Though I do love an excellent blue cheese served with a little truffled honey drizzled over."
Dessert wine. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Whether you're looking for a wine to drink alone or to match to cheese or chocolate, here are some of the main styles, and tips from wine professionals.
The fortifieds: port, muscat and sherry
Fortified wines are revved up or "fortified" with a dose of spirits: the best known is probably port. Made to last decades, it should be as rich and intense as the hero of a Mills & Boon paperback, and as full-bodied – if it's a vintage port – as the heroine.
The Barossa Pearl was popular in the '60s.
The name "port" is now reserved for wine from Portugal but Australia makes its own beautiful and widely acclaimed fortifieds. These include Seppelt's vintage "tawny" from the Barossa, with origins dating to the 19th century, and uniquely Australian styles such as topaque (made from muscadelle grapes, and formerly known as tokay) and muscat.
The Victorian Rutherglen region, near the NSW border, is famous for these extraordinary wines, which blend many vintages, some aged over generations. Eliza Brown, chief executive at Rutherglen's historic All Saints winery, says muscadelles and muscats are "the most sensuous wines imaginable". They're among the rare wines capable of holding their own with the richness and weight of chocolate desserts.
Sweet sherry, meanwhile, spent a long time stigmatised as a drink for derros and great-aunties. It took a dusky, luscious Spanish import, Pedro Ximenez ("PX" to its intimates), to rewaken many of us to sherry's after-dinner charms.
Star fortified style: For Sophie Otton, topaque from the Rutherglen region of north-eastern Victoria is Australia's greatest sweet wine style. "They tend to be a little lighter, finer and not as intensely sweet or heavy as the companion muscat. They are unique in the world of wine."
Bortrytis dessert wine
Botrytised wine is the blue cheese of the wine world: rotten but great. It owes its character to a specific rot that is not only encouraged but celebrated – botrytis, or "noble rot". Not all grape rot is noble, but if grapes are infected during moist weather and later exposed to drier, warmer weather, they may develop a "raisined" character that concentrates sugar and intensity.
Many of Europe's renowned sweet wines owe their character to botrytis – they include Frances's Sauternes, home of the world's most expensive sweet wine producer, Chateau D'Yquem. Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and Austria, and Hungarian Tokaji are intensely sweet, powerful wines that are also loved by sommeliers. "Not only are the wines outstanding," says Otton of Tokaji, "but they were the first botrytised wines to be officially documented in 1650."
In Australia, look for wines labelled "noble" or "botrytis", typically made from semillon or riesling but sometimes from other varieties.
Noble house: "A botrytis semillon is probably Australia's most celebrated and successful sweet wine style," says Christian Baeppler, sommelier at Jonah's in Whale Beach, north of Sydney. "De Bortoli's Noble One comes straight to mind." De Bortoli winemaker Steve Webber likes botrytised wines with fruit-based desserts, especially those with orange or lemon rind to balance the wine's sweetness.
Late harvest dessert wine
Sweet dessert wines aren't always botrytised. Some growers leave grapes on the vine for the longest time possible to maximise sugars: you'll often see these wines labelled "late harvest". A style of wine we're seeing more of in Australia is "cordon cut" or "cane cut", meaning that (usually) white grapes are left to ripen until late in the season and the cordons or canes on which the bunches grow are cut from the main part of the vine. The resulting fruit is shrivelled, highly flavoured and intensely sweet.
Cut loose: "Cordon-cut styles from grape varieties like riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are providing great drinking pleasure," says Baeppler.
Bubbly: sparkling wine and moscato
Are there times when it's appropriate to serve sparkling wine after dinner? Go for it, say the professionals: champagne is a great palate cleanser.
Sparkling wines tend to play especially well with fresh, unadorned fruit. Baeppler favours aged, dry blanc de blancs champagnes (made only from chardonnay grapes rather than with pinot noir and meunier) as a match for fresh figs.
There are more budget-friendly options: in Italy white muscat grapes are made into a fragrant, lightly fizzy, low-alcohol white wine called Moscato D'Asti. Otton recommends this with fresh white peach. You'll find similarly inexpensive Australian wines in the same style, both white and pink, many of them labelled moscato.
Fizzy finish: All Saints' Eliza Brown loves sparkling moscato at the end of a meal. "It's a sweeter, spritzy Italian style which is perfect with a fresh fruit salad or a pavlova."
Dessert wines are the hero at Sticky and Sweet, a series of wine-and-dessert pairings on offer during the NSW Food and Wine Festival. The festival runs until March 21. Details: nswfoodandwine.com.au/stickyandsweet.