The popularity of sweet wines reaches its peak during the months of November and December. While some people look to the classic Sauternes, Ports or Cream Sherries, I find some of the best sweet wines come from South Africa’s Stellenbosch, Australia’s Rutherglen and France’s Banyuls. Three producers from these regions make what have become my “go-to” desert wines for the holidays.
High up on Mont Fleur in Stellenbosch South Africa sits De Trafford Winery. David Trafford’s Vin de Paille is made from ripe Chenin Blanc grapes dried out for 3 weeks before fermentation. This process concentrates the already very high sugars in the grapes. Fermentation takes place in about 50% new French oak barriques for 20 months, but since there is so much sugar in the juice the natural yeast die before turning all the sweetness to alcohol. The result is a viscous, mouth filling sweet wine with bright tropical fruit notes alongside honey, lemon, apricot and butterscotch.
De Trafford was the first modern producer in South Africa to make this style of wine and it shows in the incredible quality of their Vid de Paille. The richness of the sweet fruit is balanced by very crisp acidity that comes both naturally from the Chenin Blanc grape and from careful harvesting and production techniques. The result is a complex sweet wine that is not cloying, but lingers for a long time in your mouth. The wine is great on its own, but also goes perfectly with fruit pies, creamy deserts or fruitcake.
Heading across the Southern Hemisphere to the hills of Victoria, Australia sits the town of Rutherglen. This area is famous for its fortified “sticky’ wines and one of my favorite producers is Campbell’s. The company’s Rutherglen Muscat starts with extremely ripe, almost raisined brown Muscat grapes. Fermentation is stopped by adding brandy to the wine, which brings the total alcohol up to about 17-18%. This fortification process maintains a very high level of sweetness. The wine is then added to a solera system – the same process used in Sherry production. The solera blends the wine with other vintages and, as it ages in the hot Rutherglen climate, it becomes richer and even more concentrated.
Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat is a dark amber color and has a rich caramel and treacle consistency. The flavors also remind me of caramel, along with raisin, dried plum, vanilla, mocha and slight toasty quality. This is luscious wine that is decadent to sip. It goes well with chocolate deserts and makes an adult topping for an ice cream sundae. The wine does not age in the bottle so there is not need to lay the wine down.
The popularity of Port, Sherry and Madeira makes it easy to overlook the French fortified wines called Vins Doux Naturels. These wines come from towns across Southern France and the Rhone, but my favorites are the wines from Banyuls. In this coastal village is the producer Domaine du Mas Blanc. The company has been making Banyuls since 1637.
Banyuls Rimage is made from 95% Grenache and 5% Mourvedre grapes that are picked at extreme ripeness. The grapes are then foot trodden to gently release the sweet juice. Once the alcohol has reached about 5% the fermentation is stopped by adding brandy. The juice is then left to soak for 3 weeks before being drained from the skins and moved for 8 months to closed vats before bottling.
Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Rimage is a chocolaty, creamy wine with a rich dried black plum, raisin and cherry undertones, as well as hints of coffee and caramel. It has layers of flavor and richness that make it the perfect end to a special meal or a great wine for sipping on a cold afternoon. This is a wine that I find goes well with almost any chocolate or coffee desert – from chocolate cake to tiramisu.
All three of the wines I have mentioned come in either 375 or 500 ML bottles. This size makes them a great gift item on their own or as part of a holiday basket.