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Sweet on Dessert Wines

Once upon a holiday, sticky-sweet cream sherries and sugary ports were the libation of choice with Christmas cookies and yule logs. Fast-forward to the present, where a different crop of dessert wines is racking up rave reviews and pleasing palates with quality production, elegant flavors and budget-friendly pricing. South America, land of the holy Malbec, home of Torrontes, and purveyor of Pisco, is exporting more late-harvest and sparkling wines with honeyed notes, adding panache to any festive dessert table.

“Dessert wines are a growing category for Chilean and Argentinean winemakers,” said Laurie Forster, certified sommelier and founder of The Wine Coach, a Maryland-based wine education company. “They’ve already established themselves internationally with dry table wines, so sweet wines are a natural extension of their brands.”

Quality sweet dessert wines have traditionally been associated with Old World winemaking. France has its Sauternes, Hungary its legendary Tokaji, and Italy produces sparkling Moscatos and syrupy Passitos. In the New World, Australian "stickies" are crafted from Riesling and Sémillon. California late-harvest selections and Canadian Icewine were among the few dessert wines made in the Americas that gained traction in the U.S. market.

But things are heading south in the most delicious way imaginable. In Argentina, some winemakers are producing well-balanced dessert wines from the country’s signature Torrontés grape. Shelbi Elkins, president of the San Francisco-based Copa Fina Wine Imports, recommends Siete Fincas Sparkling Dulce Torrontés N/V. “It’s delicious,” Elkins noted. “I love it by itself or with cheeses and fruit. I’ve even paired it with key lime pie.”   

Known by some as the “Queen of Torrontés,” Argentine winemaker Susana Balbo’s Late Harvest Torrontés 2010 received high scores from wine critics Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer for its delicate white floral aromas, citrus accents and honeyed lychee flavors. Balbo also makes a dessert wine exclusively with Malbec grapes. The Susana Balbo Late Harvest Malbec 2009 delights with sweet black fruit laced with violets and hints of spice. “In Mendoza’s high-elevation Uco Valley, they get warm, sunny days and cool nights, which are perfect for late-harvested grapes,” said Forster. “And the Malbec pairs nicely with chocolate.”

Dark chocolate happens to be an ideal match for Familia Deicas Licor de Tannat 2007 from Canelones, Uruguay. This sweet, fortified wine is made in the port style from Uruguay’s signature red grape, Tannat. While dry Tannats are known for packing an aggressive, tannic punch, the dessert style is “bright with blueberries and fresh fruit flavor,” according to Morgan Robinson, partner at Taste Vino, a Napa Valley wholesaler and importer of boutique South American wines. “Ports are oxidized and have a dry fruit character, but the Licor de Tannat has some flintiness along with fresh fruit aromas.”

In Chile, Montes Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2010 is made from a European varietal. The grapes are affected by botrytis, a benevolent fungus that penetrates the skin of the grape, drawing out water and resulting in more concentrated sugar levels. The wine’s delicate lychee notes and honeyed sweetness make it a beautiful match for flan, fruit tarts or a cheese plate including saltier, blue-veined selections such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola.

At $35 and under, these wines are a tremendous value compared with some European late-harvest wines and ports bearing triple-digit price tags. Whether you pair them with a postre or savor them on their own, South American dessert wines are a sweet addition to your holiday menu.

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