Banking on the upswell of interest in digestifs such as amaro and sherry, a growing number of sommeliers in the U.S.—both in fine-dining and more casual restaurants—are hoping to tap into today’s taste for after-dinner drinks with dessert wines.
Looking beyond port, Madeira, and Sauternes, forward-thinking sommeliers are presenting a wider spectrum of dessert wines, from the golden to the lightly fizzy to the ruby red. The best of these wines have vibrant acidity to counterbalance the sugar, so they’re not overwhelmingly sweet, and the hope is that guests will trade in a boozy cocktail or a glass of whiskey for a softer, more nuanced landing after a meal.
With importers making more obscure varieties of these dessert wines available in the U.S., sommeliers are finding more stories to tell. Roni Ginach of Michael’s Santa Monica is proselytizing with a by-the-glass selection of dessert wines (“treasures” as she calls them) that include a Pineau de Charentes, from Breuil de Segonzac in Cognac, and a Ratafia de Champagne from producer Dumangin. The latter is made from Champagne grapes that are fortified with brandy made from grape must. (More on that below.)
She’s looking to put a rancio from Jolly Ferriol on her list, too. It’s made in big glass jars on the front lawn of a couple’s home in France’s Roussillon. She also loves a vin cuit from Provence, a very old style of dessert wine that’s cooked in a cauldron over a wood fire; it’s intended to go with the 13 traditional Christmas desserts in the region and will come back to Michael’s when the weather cools.
Somms on a Mission
Fine dessert wines can be incredibly difficult to make and certain types can only be produced in ideal years, which means they come at a higher cost than most dry wines. A buoyant enthusiasm is overcoming what might otherwise be a hard sell for restaurateurs and diners, so much so that some sommeliers are offering these wines at a lower margin by the glass, to increase the chances of them finding a following. Others are gifting glasses to VIPs and interested customers, in an effort to bring them into the fold.
“I give myself a little budget to spend on things for people who are looking for something kind of extravagant,” Ginach says.
She was surprised to find that star Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti is making a tiny run of dessert wine, called Passo Nero, in the passito-style, using red frappato grapes that dry out on the vine. On the Michael’s menu, Ginach charges $120 a bottle for it, but she says she can be convinced to pour it by the glass.
“For me, dessert wines are the long-game run,” says Basile al Mileik, wine director at Brooklyn’s Reynard. “Maybe the next time the guest will order it because they loved it. Even if they order them in another restaurant, it’s worth it.”
With interesting back stories, smaller 3-ounce pours, and approachable alcohol levels, dessert wines can be a great substitute for dessert, or paired with it or a cheese course.
At Reynard, al Mileik has eight dessert wines on his menu, in addition to three ports, that range from $13 to $25, a glass. These days, he’s partial to a red dessert wine made from Pinot Noir: Chateau d’Arlay’s Macvin du Jura Rouge. Reynard’s pastry department macerates mulberries in it to go with a fig leaf semifreddo.
At NoMad in Los Angeles, wine director Ryan Bailey, who has a selection in mind for each dessert on the menu, says he runs through seven or eight cases of dessert wine a month, whereas he might sell 30 cases of Sauvignon Blanc. He’s particularly into older-vintage bottles, which he scouts at auctions. Currently he has a ’94 Coteaux du Layon from the Loire Valley, an ’89 Auslese Riesling from Germany’s Nahe, and a ’69 Madeira on his list, ranging from $12 to $29.
Going Beyond Gallic
It’s true that France has a preponderance of dessert wine options, but they get far more international than that. Foreign Cinema in San Francisco has nine dessert wines, including pours from Hungary’s Tokaj, Spain’s Malaga, and Austria’s Burgenland.
Collin Moody of Chicago wine bar Income Tax says two subsets of diners at his restaurant are already gravitating toward these wines. There’s the older generation, accustomed to drinking port or Madeira and amenable to trying something more obscure. But it’s the next generation that’s really moving the ball forward—and he’s more than happy to teach them the ritual of the after-dinner drink.
“Our younger guests, early-30s professionals, are often the ones looking to discover something new” and are more adventurous in learning about completely new products, says Moody. “It’s easier to have these folks try a mistelle [made by fortifying grape juice with brandy] that can energize you after a meal, rather than having another cocktail that will put you down for the count.”
Michael’s Ginach says cracking the dessert wine code might actually start at the bar. “People know about amari now, because bartenders have started to champion that. And sherry, too. Somehow these are much more accessible from bartenders.” She’s eager to see more Pineau de Charentes pop up there. “It’s great in cocktails, too.”
Six Styles of Dessert Wine to Explore
“Anything from [France’s] Jura is cool these days,” says Reynard’s al Mileik, pointing to its version of dessert wine, macvin, which is fortified with brandy and usually infused with herbs. “The cool thing is, you can make macvin with both white and red wines—from Chardonnay or Sauvignon or Pinot Noir—and they’re not overly sweet. They’re the easiest to pair with.”
Coteaux du Layon
These Loire Valley sweet wines are made from Chenin Blanc grapes that are infected with botrytis (aka noble rot) and left to dry a little on the vine, which concentrates the sugars in the remaining juice. “Waiting that long to harvest the grapes gives the wine a strong characteristic of saffron and buckwheat honey in the glass,” says NoMad’s Bailey. “Numerous times, I’ve caught myself describing these wines as a poor man’s Sauternes, since you can get a full-sized bottle with 20-plus years of age on it for the price of a newly released Sauterne.”
“Everybody in France has figured out what to do with leftover grape must,” says Michael’s Ginach, pointing to ratafia, a style of dessert wine made throughout the country (especially in Champagne and Burgundy). The grape musts are used to make a brandy, similar to grappa in Italy, and this is used to fortify sweet wines—a method of up-cycling remnants of winemaking. The ratafia is then aged in barrel, resulting in wines that have bright, fresh fruit character, with a mellow sweetness.
Clairette de Die
Rather than pouring dessert Champagnes at dessert, which would necessarily cost at least $25 a glass, Bailey likes to pour this light sparkling wine from the Rhône Valley at the more approachable $12 a glass. The style, which is primarily made from the Muscat grape, tends to have vibrant, citrusy flavors, which make it perfect for lighter desserts, such as the NoMad’s baked Alaska.
Although its dry wines are becoming popular of late, Hungary’s Tokaj region was made famous for its aszu dessert wines, a style with a rich history as a favorite of European royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries. For obvious reasons, the wines, with deeply concentrated flavors of orchard fruit and honey, were barely produced after World War II, but they’ve seen a renaissance in the last 20 years.
Sweet Auslese Riesling
In no way are all German rieslings sweet, but the ones that are, such as the late-harvest Auslese, tend to have remarkable acidity, too, which keeps them lively and nice for pairing with food. NoMad’s Bailey loves them with some age. “Our ’89 Auslese is such a good value, and it’s so fresh,” he says of the $19 pour. He even likes it with more savory dishes.