Desserts and Dessert Wines

Q San Francisco
January 1999
Page 56

Desserts and Dessert Wines

“Oh,no, I couldn’t eat ANOTHER bite. Well… MAYBE I’ll just look at the DESSERT list.”

Dessert is one of nature’s most perfect inventions. Properly made, it contains elements of all four basic food groups–sugar, fat, caffeine and a touch of salt. These of course correspond to the cardinal essences of life: earth, air, fire and water. In point of fact, dessert is a true Zen experience.

For some inexplicable reason, heated debates often occur after dinner over dessert–arguments about dieting, health, and even people who claim not to like a good chocolate mousse. These poor, deluded individuals have merely strayed from the path of all that is good, decent and moral in life. You, as a righteous individual, have a decision to make. You can reach out to them and bring them back into the fold. Or you can reach out and take the extra helping yourself.

Dessert should be accompanied by a beverage. I’ve never understood why perfectly sensible people who enjoy liquids of various sorts with their appetizers, entrees and cheeses suddenly seem to feel that nothing but water should accompany their last course. It remains shocking, but the most often overlooked part of the winelist in a restaurant is the listing of dessert wines.

Understanding sweet wines is not as difficult as it may seem at first. There are a few basic types, the rest is all variation on a theme. Perhaps most common are late-harvest wines. Simply, these are wines that have been made from grapes that are, well, late-harvest.

A basic premise in winemaking is that you leave grapes on the vine until enough of the acids in them have converted to sugars which will enable you to get a sufficient level of alcohol when you ferment the grape juice. With late-harvested grapes, you leave them on the vine till there’s so much sugar that only a portion will be converted to alcohol (the fermentation yeasts die off when the alcohol level reaches around 15%). This leaves the wine very sweet.

If you read any food and wine magazines, you’ve probably read about “botrytis” or “noble rot”. This is a fungus that develops on grapes. What the fungus does is drill little holes in the grape skin and suck the water out. This concentrates all the flavor and sugar elements in the grape, almost to the point of turning the grapes into raisins. Needless to say, the wine made from what little juice can be pressed from these grapes is highly flavored and rather sweet. The most famous of this type is Sauternes.

A similar result happens with ice-wines. Here, the grapes are left on the vine till the first frost. They are picked early in the morning while still frozen and crushed. Because much of the water is crystallized as ice, the juice is once again very concentrated and flavorful. The risk, however, of just killing off the grapes or having them rot before the first frost is high. That’s why the prices are too. Ice-wines made from Riesling in Germany generally top the quality list.

The last category are the so-called “fortified wines”. Ports, sherries, and other similar wines are made in a variety of methods, but the underlying idea is the same. Neutral grape brandy is added to grape juice or sweet wine to a level that prevents or stops fermentation (remember that 15% yeast die-off thing), resulting in, you guessed it, sweet wine.

Okay, enough of the technical stuff. Let’s get some dessert whipped up and pick a few dessert wine favorites to try out. I happen to love banana bread (like any reasonably sane individual), and then there’s this chocolate thing…

The Ultimate Banana Cake

2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup corn or canola oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
4 eggs
2 tablespoons of milk
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup of chocolate chips

(Note: All four basic food groups are indeed represented.The bananas and whole wheat flour are purely spurious…)

Mix the flour and salt. Blend in the oil and syrup. Beat the egg yolks lightly and mix into the flour mixture. Add milk and bananas and stir thoroughly. Add chocolate chips and mix. Beat the egg whites till stiff and fold in carefully till it is just blended through. Don’t over-mix at this point or you will deflate the egg whites and the cake will be just a little too dense. Pour in a loaf or cake pan and bake in a 350ÉF oven for 45-50 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.

Dessert Wine Picks

For something a little light, refreshing and just plain fun, I like Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont in Italy. This is the sweeter, less sparkly version of Asti Spumante. My current fave is Giorgio Carnevale’s “Sori”. Other great choices, Bologna’s “Vigna Senza Nome” and Bava’s “Bass Tuba” (don’t ask).

In the sweeter, more serious vein is anything made by Alois Kracher of Austria. Personal top pick (and only because I had it most recently), his Scheurebe Beerenauslese. It may be unpronounceable, but delicious definitely. Another top pick is from Chambers in Southern Australia, any or all, but the best is the Rare Muscat.

Now for something a bit heavier and red. Yes, red–dessert wines do come in all colors. I think I would have to go with Paolo Bea’s Sagrantino Passito from central Italy. But I could easily be talked into a Banyuls from Dr. Parce in southern France or Ridge’s Zinfandel Essence from California.


Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.

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