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Just Desserts

Ports, Sauternes and other palate-pleasers for the holidays


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With a little bit of research (the fun kind!), you can go far beyond giving the obligatory bottle of holiday bubbly to wine lovers on your list. Instead, create pleasures for all their senses by packaging a Port or Sauternes dessert wine with cheeses, nuts and other treats. This collection of palate-pleasers will introduce your friends to new textures, contrasting flavors, weights and sensations, creating lasting impressions and perhaps an excuse to share the gift together.

Port adds class to chocolate and after-dinner cheeses. Fruit, nuts, foie gras and even a candy cane–shaped sugar cookie are better appreciated with a glass of Sauternes.

Vintage Port from Portugal must be experienced first to create a frame of reference. Their winemakers don’t declare a vintage every year. Standards are high. The wines spend some two years aging in barrels before bottling, and the best vintages last for decades (we recently enjoyed a rich and smooth 1977 Dow). The education can begin with non-vintage Port from Fonseca, Croft and Taylor Fladgate, widely available and priced in the $12-$18 range. Then step up to any of the following classic 2003 vintage: Croft ($70), Delaforce ($60), Dow ($80) and Graham ($85).

Closer to home, the San Diego region has weather conducive to growing grapes suitable for port. Most wineries use zinfandel, which is made in every style imaginable, from the mass-produced white zinfandel pop wine to late-harvest and port-style wines with alcohol levels exceeding 15 percent. The port-like versions are often excellent, offering ripe grape, almost prune and raisin-like aromas, with hints of berries and wood, and good tannic structures for aging. The best local ports are drinkable now but can round out after several years of bottle age to offer an even longer, smoother finish. Port-like wines to seek out in the region:
Falkner 2005 Port (Cabernet Sauvignon and zinfandel blend), $30
Ponte 2006 Zinfandel Port, $46
Robert Renzoni Paradiso Port (Touriga grape, of Portuguese origin), $48
South Coast Last Harvest Old Vine Zinfandel, $24
Schwaesdall Winery 2003 Ramona (Carignan) Port, $25 (375ml)
Stuart Cellars 2002 Zinfandel Port, $46

The classic match for Port is Stilton cheese. We also like it with Manchego from Spain or dry Sonoma Jack. Better yet: layered mocha cake, chocolate truffles, chocolate cognac mousse, chocolate pots de crème or brownie torte (pick up a pattern here?), or Christmas cook­ies, biscotti or a gamey Camembert and walnut bread.

For a different aroma and taste experience, the wines of Sauternes/Barsac get their character from a fungus infection called botrytis, which shrinks the Semil­lon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, removes water and concentrates the sugar content. The distinct aroma of a botrytis wine is a magical mix of spice, honey, dried apricots, caramel and cloves. The best have a good balance of sweetness and acids, with a long, flavorful finish and nuances that will set your internal tasting database to crunching in search of comparables. The closest comparable wines: the Trockenbeerenauslese of Germany, made from Riesling and also infected with noble rot but with lower alcohol and more sweetness than Sauternes.

You have to buy a bottle to understand what botrytis contributes. Some California wines have captured it over the years, most recently the Beringer Botrytised Night­in­gale Napa Valley 2004 ($40, 375ml). Easier to find and worth the search are Sauternes/Barsac from the exceptional 2005 vintage, including the Doisy-Daene ($38), Filhot ($30) Giraud ($50), de Rayne-Vigneau ($35) and Suduiraut ($75), all 750ml. These wines are a match for lighter desserts and fruit and cheese plates (a personal favorite: apple pie with slices of sharp Cheddar cheese). The French pair Sauternes with foie gras or ripe cheeses, such as the decadent Epoisses de Bourgogne.

A match for the ubiquitous fruitcake? It goes well with a log lighter and flaming hearth. Light the logs, toss the cake into the flames, and enjoy the snap, crackle and dancing colors while you sip a 2003 Dow.

Cheers!

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