"Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love."
~Song of Solomon
Sweet fruit. Redolent, intoxicating, its viscous juice coating our palates, stimulating our pleasure centers: injections of dopamine and serotonin course through our brains. No wonder we refer to such sensations as 'heady'. Heat gushes, flushing our skin, affecting our pulse, stirring our impulses. Our inhibitions loosen their ties and kick off their shoes. Is it love, lust, or just a glass of Trockenbeerenauslese? Ahhh... Maybe it's all three combined.
Dessert wines come in all varieties; from nations and cultures all over the planet: their grapes, growing, harvesting, fermentation and bottling practices vary. Fortified or non-fortified. Botrytised on the vine, or picked, laid out in sheets and sun-dried until raisiny, one thing they all have in common is a certain air of decadence, a propensity for ageing well, and an affinity with dessert.
There are classic pairings: chocolate with the black and red fruit of Port, Banyul, or Pedro Ximenex sherry; creme brûlée with the peachy essence, apricot nectar of Eiswein, Inniskillin, or Tokaji; pear or apple tatin with the caramelized but high acidity elixirs of Sauterne, Gewurtraminer, Auslese, Riesling, and yes the improbably-long, tongue-tripping, syllable-strewn Trockenbeerenauslese. For those who are not fond of confections: dried fruits, toasted nuts, and ripe pungent cheeses pair well with all of the above. It's my preferred way to enjoy them, truth be told. The sweet white wines actually pair well with rich savory dishes as well, such as seared foie gras, lobster, etc. Neither my husband nor I are dessert people, especially not after dinner. Although, on the occasional morning with a jolting cup of java, it is a sweet way for us to start the day. I'll only eat my dessert at breakfast, but I'm more than willing to drink my dessert at night. Stoic of me, I know.
It would be impossible and unreasonable in the small space allotted to attempt to describe the many means and wines to drink your way to serendipity (not to mention deathly dull for all but the most avid oenophile). There are excellent extensive primers on the subject well within your mouse's ability to click, so I'll do my best spare us all the folly of too much information and focus on the most accessible choices instead.
One of my favorite poets and prose stylists, once quite rightly affirmed,
(Eat your chocolates, little girl,
Eat your chocolates!
Believe me, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates,
And all religions put together teach no more than the candy shop.
Eat, dirty little girl, eat!
If only I could eat chocolates with the same truth as you!
But I think and, removing the silver paper that’s tinfoil,
I throw it on the ground, as I’ve thrown out life.)
~ “Tabaqueria” by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa
Nothing goes better with chocolate than Port. Now... Ports are a dessert wine from Portugal, prized and popular, both vintage and tawny (vintage port being grapes grown and harvested in one particular year which has been "declared" by the major houses and it is bottle-aged after spending a short period in wooden casks; tawny port is a blend of different vintages aged in barrels for 20 years, mellowing its fruit, making it less sweet, has no specific date designated to it. Tawny port is cheaper and more readily available for purchase), but it takes decades and decades for a vintage port to mature. I have had a glass of 1900 Dow's whose murky amber syrup was still tongue-gripping, even one hundred years after it was harvested. My husband's birth year 1955 produced magnificent wines from every wine-making region on the globe and truly exceptional vintage port with amazing aging potential. Still considered as drinking well now or having considerable further cellaring. Port will outlive its purchasers, but it is costly and not for the uninitiated palate. I remember serving a glass of 1963 Graham's to my step-monster-in-law. Coughing dramatically, she spit it out, accusing me of serving her Robitussin cough medicine. Needless to say, I wished I had laced her glass with arsenic. So perhaps ex-nay on the Port-ay for all but your most discriminating guests.
No, the wine I will recommend is easily quaffable for the virgin or untutored tongue accustomed to drinking Diet Fresca and rum, despite being afflicted with botrytis. Botrytis... Ah Botrytis... - sounds awful doesn't it?
"What did James contract?"
"Botrytis, poor man. It was a slow painful death. Every botry in his system swelled to the size of grapefruits. Terribly sad."
Fortunately for the savvy wino (& James) botrytis (technically called botrytis cinerea) actually refers to noble rot... its nomenclature no doubt a harbinger of the trouble that the feudal system would eventually experience.
(Here is where I'll launch briefly into fungus and fermentation and horny monks getting drunk. Those of you bored by history can use this time to check your text messages. Come back in five minutes and meet me by the pumpkin caramel pot de creme recipe. I'll be waiting with my favorite red rubber spatula for you).
There are three key stories in the history of botrytis cinerea. The first dates back to the Hungarian town of Tokaj in 1650 when the local winemaker (also the parish priest), Abbot Maté Szepsi, temporarily fled the town in fear of an Ottoman invasion. The vintage was therefore delayed and some bunches rotted with botrytis. The infected grapes were crushed separately and, much to the surprise and delight of the Abbot, turned into an extraordinary wine. Cowardice is its own reward. The virtues of the mold were duly noted and it wasn’t long before the sweet wines of Tokaj and the surrounding region Tokaji became internationally famous as “the wine of kings and king of wines.” and is my preferred form of liquid gold.
Moving along to 1775 and to the Rheingau region of Germany, Riesling, arguably the most versatile of grape varieties, was the dominant vine. A messenger sent to give the order to start picking was delayed by highway bandits. The messenger arrived two weeks late and found the harvest spoiled, and (being a cheap heartless bastard who was more than willing to have the less fortunate eat what he would never touch) had the rotten fruit distributed to the peasants. The peasants decided to make wine out of it anyway and the rest is history. Was it curiosity? Was it desperation? Does it matter? Necessity is the mother of invention, and no one learns how to do more out of necessity than the impoverished. The irony of these wines being amongst the most costly is not lost on me. Today German Rieslings are made in varying degrees of sweetness, the sweetest of which (beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese) are both botrytis affected.
Arguably the most famous incarnation of botrytised wine comes from the French district of Sauterne where it is made from Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc and small amounts of Muscadelle. The process of botrytising Sauternes dates to 1847 and an accidental late harvest. Botrytis cinerea affected the wines in such a way that it became known as, “pourriture noble,” which translates to, “noble rot.” Chateau d'Yquem being the most vaunted of the lot, a rare 1787 vintage Chateau d'Yquem fetched $100,000 from an anonymous American collector in 2006.
Let's talk about noble rot. Mold infects grapes on the vine, rotting them. This is no exaggeration. If you’ve never seen a botrytis infected bunch then imagine horrible, shrivelled, decrepit grapes, the likes of which you wouldn’t even dream of touching, no less putting in your mouth. And yet, the world’s greatest sweet wines are made from these. But why does it make a sweet style?
Botrytis grows on the skin of the grapes and effectively sucks the water out of the berries. Dehydrating them. In doing so, it concentrates the sugars and flavors within the fruit. Grapes, like any other fruit, accumulate sugar as they ripen. Therefore, late picked grapes have not only given time for the mold to grow, but are high in sugar. When the grapes are picked, only enough sugar is fermented out to result in a wine of approximately 12% - 13% alcohol with plenty of residual sweetness.
The conditions botrytis prefers are damp, humid environments. Botrytis prefers thin skinned, tightly bunched varieties. Thin skinned, so that it can penetrate the skin and access the berry’s moisture. Tightly packed so as to spread more readily from berry to berry. Semillon fits into both of these categories as does Riesling, so it’s little wonder that the majority of botrytised wines are made from these varietals. Another variety particularly susceptible is Merlot. Although usually a botrytis infected Merlot is thrown in the bin, dessert wine made from this variety is not unheard of.
What separates the great botrytis wines from the rest is complexity of flavour and a fresh, acid finish. A brightness. Flavors to look for are honey, marmalade and citrus. Acidity is essential to give the wine body - length and balance - to avoid a short cloying experience with a sickly sweet finish. The best news for the consumer of all things full of Yeats' warm south, full of the true and blushful Hippocrene - Longfellow's very Goblet of Life? Their beauty only improves score after score. Wish I could say that.
The dessert wine I will recommend to pair with our pumpkin caramel pot de cremes is Royal Tokaji. It's an institution. It's noble. And it is inexplicably one of the wine world's best kept secrets. Tokaj is the region's name. Tokaji (with an i) is the wine itself. The letter "I" is a possessive. Both are pronounced TOE-Kye.
Formerly known as Tokaj-Hegyalja, the region is located in the northeastern corner of Hungary, a good 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the capital, Budapest. Its 5500 hectares (13,600 acres) of vineyards are woven around 27 villages and towns, such as Tarcal, Mád and Tokaj itself. Some of the wines are designated as Aszú . Aszú indicates that the wine is made of grapes infected with the botrytis fungus. Those grapes are pressed into a kind of paste, which is then added to a dry base wine (or fermenting must) to make Tokaji aszú. This wine can have a range of sweetness levels, which are distinguished on the bottle label by the number of puttonyos. The higher the puttonyos, the higher the wine's residual sugar. The top of the line Tokaji aszús are 5-puttonyos, with at least 120 grams of residual sugar per liter, and 6-puttonyos with a minimum of 150 g/l. While Tokaji aszú has variations of ripe, honeyed fruit tones that can range from pineapple and dried apricot to lychee and quince, and spice notes that may exude ginger and nutmeg, the wine is most often underscored by a rich, sometimes salty, volcanic minerality – thanks to the region's ancient volcanic terroir. France's Sauternes and the Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen from Austria and Germany are certainly amongst the world's stellar botrytized sweeties but, honey, Tokaji aszú just drips with distinction.
There are many makers in the region. The grande dame of Tokaji winemaking is István Szepsy from the village of Mád, with his 6 puttonyos aszú, szamorodni and stunning dry wines from superb mineral-packed vineyards such as Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó and Úrágya. Other greats include Zoltán Demeter, Erzsébet Pince, Dobogó (Tokaj); Disznókő (near Mezőzombor); Gróf Degenfeld (Tarcal); Samuel Tinon (Olaszliszka) and Patricius (Bodrogkisfalud).
One popular house is called simply the Royal Tokaji Wine Company (also from Mád). It makes wonderful wine, the name is easy to remember and its provenance has an interesting backstory. This maker owns a unique combination of first- and second-growth vineyards that have always been privately owned. At one time, first-growth vineyards Betsek and Szt. Tamás were owned by Prince Rakoczi I. His vineyards were sold in the late 1660s to save the prince, who was involved in a conspiracy that would have otherwise cost him his life. His son, Prince Rakoczi II, was able to buy back the prized land in the 1700s. Three centuries later, these vineyards continue to be highly valued. The prices range depending on the seller and the growth from $19 to $50 for 500ml.
The growth regions are as follows:
"Szt. Tamás (SENT tahm-ash)
Szt. Tamás Vineyard is located north of the Nyulászó Vineyard on south-facing slopes at nearly 220 meters (720 feet), overlooking the winery’s cellars. Named for the apostle Saint Thomas, the vineyard’s red volcanic-clay soil is high in iron oxide and has the ability to retain moisture well, a characteristic helpful in drought years. Wines produced from grapes grown here have a lovely, pure fruitiness, nice acidity and good ageability.
Betsek is named after an old Magyar family. Shaped like a crescent moon and facing southeast, it is located in what is known as the basin of the first growths. The Betsek terroir totals 89 hectares (219.9 acres). The area where the vineyard is located is typically cold — lower portions of the vineyard have been known to freeze in the spring. The black volcanic topsoil contributes to the mineral and lovely black pepper characters in the wine. Being at the bottom of the valley, the vineyard imparts a much more earthy character to the wine than the other first growths.
Mézes Mály (MAIZE-esh my)
Great first growth
Mézes Mály is one of only two vineyards in all of Tokaj to be named as a great first growth in the classification of 1700 (the other portion of the vineyard is owned by Hugh Johnson). It has since been referred to as “pro mensa caesaris primus haberi,” or “to be the first choice at the royal table,” — an honorable distinction likened to Château d’Yquem’s status in Bordeaux. Located on a south-facing slope, “Mézes Mály,” or “honeycomb,” is Royal Tokaji’s only vineyard with loess topsoil, providing the wines with honey and floral characteristics. These wines are softer than other Royal Tokaji wines grown in vineyards with volcanic-clay topsoil.
PUMPKIN CARAMEL POT DE CRÈME
This recipe is simple, and straightforward. No baking required.
A few notes:
Use room temperature eggs to prevent curdling.
This dessert can be served warm or chilled.
If you can, do use homemade caramel sauce as it has a deeper flavor and avoids the cloying aftertaste found in commercial caramel sauce. It is also less costly than store brands. The recipe for it is included below. I LOVE MAKING CARAMEL SAUCE!!! Pure alchemy! The moment that something so gray and grainy becomes fluid, golden & fragrant, bubbling like the molten core of this earth... is one that never fails to thrill me! Then you add the creamy white to its deep burnt amber & the silken ribbons flow... INCREDIBLE! Then I add a hint of rose salt and well.. the tongue doesn't lie... A heart attack guaranteed with every bite! It is truly orgasm-inducing.
Serves 6-8 people
Pot de Creme:
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 5 large egg yolks
- ¼ cup plus sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup plus two tablespoons of pumpkin puree
- ¼ cup homemade caramel sauce (recipe follows)
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Homemade Caramel Sauce:
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons water
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 10 tablespoons of heavy cream
- ½ teaspoons of kosher salt
Pot de Creme:
In a medium saucepan, bring heavy cream and sugar to a boil, whisking constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Put aside and let cool for five minutes.
In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Add ¼ cup of heated cream mixture to egg mixture and whisk to combine. Continue adding cream mixture in ¼ cup increments to eggs until the two are fully combined. Place fully combined mixture back in to a pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the custard coats the back of the spoon, about 4 minutes. Add in pumpkin puree, caramel sauce, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until very smooth, about 1 minute. Pour the finished custard through a strainer. Pour into individual ramekins.
Refrigerate until chilled about 2 hours.
To serve warm: Let the pots de crème stand at room temperature for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.
Homemade Caramel Sauce:
1. Add sugar and water into a saucepan over medium low heat. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Use a wet brush to remove any crystals that form on the side. Once sugar has dissolved increase heat to high. Now and then, using the handle give the pot a swirl to keep the mixture moving. Do not stir the mixture directly. The mixture will start to bubble after a minute. As the mixture darkens to a deep amber color, approximately 5-7 minutes, add the butter and cream to saucepan. The mixture will bubble wildly. Whisk to combine (bubbles will subside upon cooling). Add salt and stir to combine.