South African Dessert Wines
Dessert wines are, by definition, high in alcohol. This alcohol is made from the increased concentration of sugar in these wines and the two combine to define them. The ratio of water to sugar can be changed by actually adding sugar, unfermented grape juice or honey before fermentation or must afterward. Alternatively, wine makers may opt to remove water during production, increasing the concentration of sugar in the volume of wine. Drying the grapes into raisins and then using these to make the wine achieves this sweetened effect too, as does freezing some of the water out of the wine, making what is known as “ice wine”. Adding Botrytis cinerea desiccates the grapes and increases their sugar content, having a similar effect.
Certain grapes, such as the Muscat, are sweeter by their very nature. These and other varieties are made sweeter by being picked only once they are completely ripe and have their highest sugar levels. The more sun these grapes get, the sweeter they become, so wine farmers rely very much on a hot, sunny summer. To improve their grapes’ chances of maximum exposure, the farmer may choose to clip away any leaves casting a shadow on the grapes below them on the vine. This approach renders different versions of each wine every harvest, creating an unreliable (but always natural) product. One of South Africa’s most famous Muscats was the Constantia of old, and this is likely to have been sweetened in this natural way.
When selecting a dessert wine, it is vital that the wine is sweeter than the dish it is accompanying. Chocolate has a bitter base taste and this does not match well with sweet dessert wines. Baked goods with nuts and honey are far more suitably enjoyed with a sugary and flavorsome wine. Sweet, ripe fruits are also fantastically set off by a good dessert wine. When a fortified or dessert wine is well made, though, it can be enjoyed as the perfect end to a hearty meal all on its own. It should be served slightly chilled if it is white, and at room temperature if it is a red wine.
The very sweet dessert wines are not matured for very long, whereas ports are aged for far longer periods. The aging process is largely determined by the size of the oak vats in which the wine is placed. The larger the vat, the longer its contents will take to mature.
While dessert wines may be regarded by some wine connoisseurs as being inferior or subordinate to their more ‘savory’ counterparts, they have earned acclaim over the years. Their rich, sugary body is offset by their syrupy texture and alcoholic warmth, a winning combination by even the most discerning of palate’s standards.
Fiona Phillips has an M.B.A. from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and completed several Cape Wine Academy courses, culminating in Diploma II. Her passion for wine and her fascination for the limitless possibilities of the Internet motivated the start-up http://www.cybercellar.com
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