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November 10, 2011

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Sweet wines with intensity

WHAT'S the greatest sweet wine in the world? This question is sure to draw an active debate among wine lovers but two names that would certainly be in the conversation are Sauternes and Vinsanto. Others like Tokay, Vintage Port, VORS Pedro Ximenez Sherry and the great ice wines of Germany, Austria and Canada would also be worthy contenders but alas these splendid wines must wait for future columns. This week we'll explore the uniquely sweet and regal wines Sauternes and Vinsanto.

Rotten wine

Sauternes is in the southern region of the left bank of Bordeaux and is one of the few wine regions in the world where a combination of factors often leads to grapes being affected by Botrytis Cinerea, more affectionately known as noble rot. This rather disgusting sounding and looking fungus plays a critical role in making some of the world's greatest sweet wines, including the world's most famous and expensive sweet wine Chateau d'Yquem.

Sauternes like most of Bordeaux enjoys a maritime climate with two rivers bordering and intersecting the region. The warmer waters of the Garonne River that flows to the Atlantic and its tributary Ciron River that has cooler waters from its spring water source interact to form a mist that envelops the vines of Sauternes. From the late evening to early morning when the sun rises and dissipates the mist, the grapes are coated in moisture. The mist helps activate dormant spores of the Botrytis Cinerea fungus while the drying of the grape by the morning sun prevents the development of the destructive grey rot fungus that ruins grapes. This noble rot in fact engenders the dramatic sweet apricot, peach and honey flavors while still allowing for a healthy dose of acidity that prevents the wines from being overly sweet.

Though Sauternes is now arguably the world's most famous noble rot sweet wine; other regions like Tokai in Hungary most likely made these wines centuries before the wine makers of Bordeaux. In fact, until the 18th century many Sauternes wine makers kept the process secret from consumers thinking the idea of a fungus infected grape wine would be distasteful to consumers. By the late 18th century the sweet wines of Sauternes had won acclaim and fans worldwide, including the first President of the United States George Washington. Upon tasting Chateau d'Yquem for the first time, Washington promptly ordered 50 cases.

Holy wine

The origin of the name Vinsanto, literally "holy wine," is not clear. Some claim the term was first applied in the 14th century during the plague. This account claims a friar working in Sena used sweet wine left over from the Mass to appease the pain of those suffering from the plague and miraculously some were cured and thus the wine because known as holy wine.

Others maintain that the wine derived its name from the fact that vinification of the wine often starts on All Saints Day and bottling around the time of Easter.

Regardless of the true origin of the name, by the mid 15th century the beautiful sweet wine of Tuscany was universally referred to as holy wine. While other regions including Umbria, Veneto and Trentino also make Vinsanto wines the spiritual home of these wines is Tuscany.

If Sauternes is all about noble rot, then Vinsanto is about drying and aging.

After the local Trebbiano and Malvasia white wine grapes are harvested they are left to dry in special dark rooms for three to six months. Today many producers put the grapes on straw or plastic mats to dry, but the traditional way still used by the best producers is to hang strands of grape from the rafters of attics. As the grapes dry the sugars become very concentrated producing a very fragrant semi dry raisin. The grapes are then put into small barrels that still have a small amount of wine from a previous vintage. This older wine acts as a catalyst for fermentation and adds greater complexity to the finished wine.

Traditionally, chestnut barrels were used to ferment and age Vinsanto but some producers today also use small oak casks. Unlike other barrels that are stored in cool cellars, the Vinsanto barrels are kept in the attics or top floors of building where the temperature frequently fluctuates. Special yeasts help to slowly ferment the wine. In most Vinsanto DOC regions the minimum aging time in the barrel is three years but top producers often age their wines for five or even up to 10 years.

The result of this elaborate process is a pale to dark amber wine of extraordinary depth and character with scents and flavors of toffee, sweet stewed and dried fruit along with a crisp acidity.

It's this combination of sweetness and acidity that makes this one of the most balanced of all sweet wines. The long aging in oak commonly imparts subtle flavors associated with oxidation bequeathing the wines with almost Sherry-like nutty and oaky qualities.

Sweet companions

One of the epicurean world's most classic pairings is goose liver served with a glass of Sauternes. The complex sweet flavors complement the richness of the goose liver while the acidity in the wine facilitates digestion. Another historic pairing is Sauternes and the stinky French cheese Roquefort. The saltiness and pungency of the cheese is beautifully offset and soothed by the generous sweet fruit qualities of the wine. The ample acidity in Sauternes also makes them appropriate for chilled fresh seafood as well as aromatically spiced seafood. Recently I enjoy a Sauternes with Indian style prawns in Marsala sauce. The complexity and richness of the wine embellishes plain cookies or cakes by adding flavor dimensions.

If Sauternes and foie gras is in the food and wine pairing hall of fame then so must Vinsanto served with biscotti, the Italian dry bisque. By itself biscotti is a rather dry and ordinary cookie but when dipped in Vin Santo it becomes something magically delicious with beautiful sweet fruit and nut flavors. The intrinsic nuttiness of Vinsanto also makes the wine a natural companion to a wide range of natural or salted nuts.

Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Vin Santo del Chianti
Classico (DOCG), 2003
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Variety: Malvasia
Aging method/Potential: 5+ years in small barrels/lovely now and can be kept for 10+ years.
Serving and food pairing: serve chilled, about 10; an excellent contemplative wine served alone after dinner, but also nice with dark chocolate as well as sweet moon cakes.
Price/Importer: 498 yuan (375ml), Watson's Wine
Body: Dry/Sweet:

deep amber color, complex fruity and nutty nose and concentrated elegant yellow fruit, honey and coffee flavors with a long, pleasantly clean finish; excellent Vin Santo with exceptional sweet fruit and acidity balance.

Ruffino, Vin Santo del Chianti Serelle (DOC), 2006
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Variety: Malvasia, Trebbiano
Aging method/Potential: 3+ years in Caratelli barrels/drink now of over the next decade.
Serving and food pairing: Serve 8-10; fine as a digestif and also very nice with nuts, dried fruit, cakes and dry snacks and desserts.
Price/Importer: 308 yuan (375ml)/ASC
Body: Dry/Sweet:
since Ruffino's first vintage in 1988 this has been a consistently good Vinsanto; the wine features a deep amber color, intense nose of honey and candied fruits and delicious dried apricot, figs and dates with a long finish with sensations of creamy citrus fruits.

Chateau Cantegril Denis Dubourdieu, 2007
Region: Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Variety: 75% Sémillon, 25% Sauvignon
Aging method/Potential: Fermentation and 18 months maturation in oak barrels/lovely now but can be cellared for 25+ years.
Serving and food pairing: Serve 8-10oC; great with goose liver and also lovely with spicy food, strong cheeses and pastries.
Price/Importer: 247 yuan (375ml)/EMW
Body: Dry/Sweet:

consistently delicious Sauternes with deep golden color abundant aromas and flavors of apricots, honey and dried fruits and an intriguing oily texture that coats the palate and a fine clean finish.

Chateau de Rayne-Vigneau, 2003
Region: Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Variety: 74% Sémillon, 24% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscadelle
Aging method/Potential: 18 months in 50% new French oak/approachable now but will develop even more complexity over the next 5-25 years.
Serving and food pairing: Serve 8-10oC; naturally goose live, but also nice with abundantly spiced Indian and Thai dishes, strong cheeses and fresh fruits.
Price/Importer: 539 yuan/Altavis
Body: Dry/Sweet:

progressive 1er Cru Sauternes with deep golden color with hints of amber, honey and fresh herb nose and rich botrytis character with apricot, honey and candied lemon flavors and fresh yet persistent finish.


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