[Photo: A glass of port wine / Credit: Jon Sullivan, public domain]

If you started your interest in wine because you fell in love with dry table wines, then you’re probably a lot like me and couldn’t get into dessert wines for a while. I can honestly say that I love them now. Good ones, anyway. But before my nose and palette were practiced enough to pick up anything but the smell of raisins, I was not impressed. I hate raisins. In the immortal words of Mary Stewart Masterson’s “Joon” character,

“They used to be fat and juicy and now they're twisted. They had their lives stolen. Well, they taste sweet, but really they're just humiliated grapes.” 

Exactly, Joon. Preach on, sister. The only way I’m choking down a raisin is if it’s buried in bread pudding that’s been smothered in bourbon sauce. 

In addition to the smell of raisins, I was originally put off by the sweetness. As a fledgling wine enthusiast, sweetness said “cheap” to me. Wine coolers are sweet. Boone’s Farm is sweet. Sweet wines are for people who don’t like wine. And, unfortunately, they’re often tacked on as an afterthought in many educational settings. I suspect this further reinforces the impression for many novices that late harvest and fortified wines aren’t worthy our attention.

The fundamental key to a good dessert wine is tension. The word has a negative connotation; as in shoulder tension or tension in peace talks between warring nations. But, for dessert wine, it’s actually a desirable condition. So instead, I like to think of it more like sexual tension. I don’t want to get into that Michael Broadbent territory of talking about wines like they’re women he’s bedded or wants to bed. Yuck. However, wine is a sensual experience (in that it engages our senses), so it’s understandable that, in an effort to describe them to other people, we occasionally look to other sensual experiences for relatable metaphors. 

So, back to the good tension of a well-made dessert wine…  We describe dessert wines as “sweet," and they are, but that’s only half the story. It turns out that our palettes crave contrast. The residual sugar in the wine must be balanced out by enough acid or tannins to make us want to take another sip. As much as our palettes love sugar, it seems we’re only wired to accept it in small doses. Otherwise, it’s cloying, which is a legitimate flaw. And, I hate to admit it, but most of the disappointing dessert wines I’ve tried were American. As a culture, we’re addicted to sugar, so I think it’s much less obvious to us that a dessert wine is flawed when all we detect is sweetness. But, the tension is critical to whether you want to keep drinking it after the first or second taste. When it’s done right, we get a moment of pleasing sweetness, then the acid or tannin clears it away, and our palettes are ready for another taste. In a way, dessert wines are a kind of exercise in yearning. A good one dazzles your palette, but leaves you wanting more.

Eventually I came around to the reality that there’s a whole world to dessert wine that’s definitely worth exploring. There’s a wide range of styles (fortified, oxidized, noble rot, ice wines, etc.), many are finely crafted and very age-worthy, and they can make some transcendent pairings. Sauternes paired with almost any cheese on the planet, for example. And once I was a little more practiced, I was able to detect a wide range of aromas and flavors (floral, fruity, nutty, savory, smoky, etc.). They have a way of growing on you so that once you’ve experienced a couple good ones, you can’t help but come around to them.

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