By Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier
As I am a first generation American with Hungarian heritage, I generally serve the highly sought after Tokaji wine, famous for its sweet, fruity, and acidic character. It is such an interesting grape! It is thick skinned but, as it ripens, the skins stretch and thin allowing the sunlight to penetrate, increasing the concentration of sugar. The sweetness level can vary depending upon how much residual sugar the winemaker decides to leave in the wine, how botrytized the grapes become and how the wine is ultimately blended. The sweetness is measured in ‘Puttonyos’ on a scale from 1 to 6 which is noted on the label. The most common is 5 Puttonyos.
Now, when I say ‘sweet’, I do not want you to think of sweet as in cloying, grocery store, birthday cake icing. It is a sweet wine, for sure, but with a backbone of acidity that makes the wine bright and lively on the palate with a hint of minerality. The elevated acidity is the key to a wine with great balance.
Stylistically, Tokaji shows apricot, orange zest and honey on a core of earth and minerality. I love to serve this with an Almond Tart topped with Mascarpone. It is a true gift from the vineyard. The Royal Tokaji Wine Company makes a splendid product, generally found in 500 ml bottles (vs. the standard 750 ml size), and the price ranges from $45 to $70 depending upon vintage.
Sauternes is another excellent choice. It too is a sweet wine, rich and honeyed on the palate and shows a bit more fruit than the Tokaji wine. Foggy condition in the region (Sauternes is south of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne River) can create the perfect conditions for the growth of Botrytis, a mold that pulls water from the grapes, causing them to shrivel on the vine (think raisins) and gives the wine its signature richness. The grapes have concentrated sugars and flavors which result in sweet, intensely flavored wines.
Stylistically, Sauternes have notes of apricots, honey, and peaches but with a slightly nutty element. Foie gras is a classic match for these beautiful wines. While the most famous producer is Chateau Y’quem (price point of $200+ at the least expensive), Chateau Suduiraut is a favorite of mine and more modestly priced (generally in the $50 to $75 range depending upon vintage) and always seem to please.
Port is another all-time favorite and probably better recognized in the mainstream wine drinking community. It is crafted in varying styles and quality. The grapes are grown in steep vineyards that wind along the Douro River in Northern Portugal all the way East toward the Spanish border. Once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the winery, placed in Lagares (large, shallow tanks made of granite) for fermenting and extraction. This is accomplished by the traditional process of ‘foot treading’ which extracts color, tannin, and flavors from the grapes. Using the human foot prevents the breaking of seeds which can impart bitter tannins into the must. This practice is still used by some premium and super premium port producers, although modern lagares have been created that use silicon feet to replicate the traditional human foot treading.
The wine is fortified which stops fermentation and it spends its first year in the Douro. The maturing wine is transported (once upon a time in boats on the Douro) to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Oporto for further ageing. Many styles of port are crafted from a simple Ruby or Tawny port (no vintage or age indication on the label) to high quality Vintage/Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports to Tawny Ports/Colheita with an indication of age and celebrating their oxidative life in the barrel.
This year, we will be enjoying a 20 Year Graham’s Tawny Port with our Christmas dessert. This tawny wine was aged in neutral wooden barrels called ‘pipes’ which allows controlled exposure to oxygen for a period of time so the alcohol integrates. The once fresh fruit aromas and flavors take on dried fruit characteristics and oxidative aromas, bringing enticing aromas and flavors of caramel and nuts to the wine.
While the bottle is labeled as aged for 20 years, this does not mean the minimum age of the wine in the blend is at least 20 years old. A 20 Year Tawny Port is made up of wines younger and older than the specified age. In reality, the wine is tasted by a panel within the IVDP (the governing body that supervises wine producers in the region) and this organization does a taste test to ensure the wine has characteristics indicative of a wine that age to be labeled as such.
Because I could not wait, I decided to taste the wine before serving at Christmas and as anticipated, this is a particularly good wine. Although port has high alcohol, the generous primary stone fruit aromas/flavors of plum and apricot and the tertiary elements of caramel, raisins, nuts, orange peel with a hint of cinnamon, are expressive and show incredibly good balance and an elevated palate intensity just short of pronounced. The acidity is juicy and complements the soft tannins ending in a complex ripe/dried fruit and smooth finish. I know this is going to be a very tasty accompaniment to the homemade Rum Bundt Cake!
Whatever you choose to serve at your Christmas dinner (and there are Sherry, Madeira, and Vin Doux Natural wines out there that I have not touched upon), have some fun in choosing, be adventuresome, and celebrate good food, family, and friends.
Here is to a wonderful and COVID-19-free 2021.