Wine Lover's France - A Guide to French Dessert Wines
Dessert wines abound in Europe, from the sweet reds and moscatos of Italy to the ports, madeiras, and sherries of Portugal. France too is well known for its after-dinner wines, considering nearly every region has their own sweet wine.
All of these wines do share some commonalities, including that they pair well with dessert, among other courses. They also are made in a similar way; in order to keep the natural sugars and sweetness intact, the yeast isn't allowed to turn all the grape sugar into alcohol. This is done by stopping the fermentation process early.
The Sweet Wines of Southern France
By far the most well-known dessert wine of France is Sauternes, not to be confused with the semi-generic label of sauterne (note the lower case as well as the omission of the 's' at the end), which is often seen in the U.S. to describe a variety of white dessert wines. France's Sauternes hails from the southwestern region of Bordeaux and contains at least 14% alcohol content. The Sémillion grapes that make this wine are often harvested late in the season to give the wine an extra bit sugar.
Noble rot grapes are also used, as they are in a number of French sweet wines. These grapes may not sound appealing — especially when considering they're made by rotting vegetables and fruits — but they do add a wonderful interesting note to the wine, particularly honey and ginger flavors. Noble rot grapes also add a richness to the wines as well.
In general, Sauternes wines feature flavors of honey, apricots, and peaches, as well as a slightly nutty flavor. In addition to pairing well with desserts, it also goes well with a number of savory dishes, such as seafood and creamy dishes.
Other Dessert Wines of France
While Sauternes is by far one of the most popular French sweet wines, along with its neighbor and counterpart Barsac, it's far from the only one. In the Alsace region, off-dry wines (labeled as demi-sec) are made with over-ripe grapes and are Rieslings and Pinot Gris, for example. Sparkling dessert wines are also made in nearly every region of France, but most hail from Champagne; most are often considered off-dry wines as well. These aren't overly sweet, and therefore can be imbibed as aperitifs as well.
Up north in the Loire Valley, home to our cooking vacation A Chateau Culinary Adventure at Le Calabash, Chenin Blanc wines are also produced (and they are quite popular in both the U.S. and South Africa as well). While not as sweet as other dessert wines of France, they, including the popular Vouvray, still go well with desserts, especially ones that are flavored with vanilla.
Just as wines paired with your dinner enhance the flavor of your meal, so too do dessert wines with desserts. With their higher alcohol content though, they're quite strong, which is why they're often served in a smaller glasses. Cheers! Or as they say in France, à votre santé!
By Liz Hall