WHEN I MENTIONED I'd be writing about dessert wine, this was my editor's honest reaction: "Sweet wine, ewww!" It seems sweet wine has a bit of an image problem—which is a shame, as these are some of the most exceptional, kick-ass wines around. Sweet wine doesn't have to mean the stuff your great aunt brings over for Thanksgiving, insisting you try it even though you're nursing the hangover from hell. No, these are complex but friendly wines that are sweet without being sickly—a good one should elicit a "Where have you been all my life?" response.
For the winemaker, sweet wines are a hassle: They're a high-risk commitment, and expensive to produce. Prices are correspondingly higher than your average bottle of plonk—but then again, this is wine built for savoring and sipping, so a couple of glasses is usually sufficient for one sitting. Dessert wine is made with red or white grapes that are ripe and packed with sugar. There are various methods for making it, and the results are both wide ranging and distinctive. Europe has been producing it for centuries, but you can pick up local versions from the likes of Eola Hills and Sokol Blosser.
Will Prouty at Division Wines bottle shop believes that "food is the bridge to wines that you might not try." For those who are curious, but uncommitted, he suggests beginning at a restaurant, and asking the server or sommelier what to pair with the dessert. In general, you want a dessert wine that's at least as sweet as the accompanying food, or one that will be a contrast. (That's why sweet wines aren't just great with goodies, but can also be a perfect match for salty cheese, rich pâté, or mousse.)
Given that Halloween is upon us, here are four wines to try with your trick-or-treat stash—as well as more conventional pairings.
Fattoria Montellori Vin Santo, 2009
Vin Santo ("Holy Wine") from Tuscany is made from grapes that have been dried for up to six months, usually on mats, until they are shriveled and raisin-like. The Montellori estate makes theirs from the Trebbiano grape, and ages it for a minimum of five years. The result is a little bombshell of packed aromas—dried fruits, nuttiness, honeysuckle—and a lavish mouth-feel of honey and light citrus.
Halloween Fare: peanut brittle, Fig Newtons, cookies
Grownup Pairing: biscotti, dried fruit, fruit pie
$23.25, Europa Wine Merchant, 1111 SW Alder
Domaine des Schistes "La Cerisaie" Maury, 2011
Maury is a lesser-known region in Roussillon in Southern France known for its "vin doux naturel." These are wines that are fortified with a spirit—often brandy—which halts the fermentation process to retain a natural sweetness. La Cerisaie is made from Grenache Noir and is a good value—ripe yet bright, and not overtly fruity, with flavors of raisin and cherry. The shot of added spirit boosts the alcohol content to 16 percent.
Halloween Fare: any chocolate candy
Grownup Pairing: foie gras, spicy Asian dishes, the fancy chocolate section at New Seasons
$23, Division Wines, 3564 SE Division
Château Loupiac-Gaudiet, 2010
An aromatic, golden wine from Loupiac in Bordeaux that isn't heavy and cloying like some dessert wines. A blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, it's made with grapes infected with Botrytis mold (known as Noble Rot), which by some sleight of hand sucks water from the grapes while enhancing the richness of flavor. It has a beguiling taste of honey, orange marmalade, and citrus that lights up the senses. It's made in the same way as prestigious Sauternes wines, but at a fraction of the price (the secret is that Loupiac sits just across the river from its more famous neighbor).
Halloween Fare: candy corn, Starburst
Grownup Pairing: blue cheese, brie, ham, veal, fruit tarts
$17, 1856, 1465 NE Prescott
Vaquer Muscat de Rivesaltes, 2010
The winemaker describes the taste as "reminiscent of biting into a fresh grape," because it's so fresh and vibrant. It's also smooth and sweet, with punchy aromas of tropical fruits—pineapple and mango—as well as some peach and a hint of mint. Another fortified wine from Southern France, this one's punched up with a variety of Muscat. It's a great value.
Halloween Fare: Hershey's milk chocolate
Grownup Pairing: slightly chilled as an aperitif, forceful cheeses such as Roquefort, fruit desserts
$19.95 (750ml), Barrique Barrel, 7401 N Burlington