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Skip the after-dinner coffee and head straight to these dessert wines.

Sweet Rewards


Sweet wine has a widespread reputation as unsophisticated, cheap and simple. Even winemakers know this, that's why many of them use a second label, one with less recognition than their main labels, for their sweet "festival" wine. In fact, I don't like sweet wines much at all. But sweet dessert wine? Well that's a horse of a different color, and one that runs better with dessert than the ubiquitous cup of coffee.

Fine dessert wines are special. At their best, they exhibit a sophisticated balance of sugars and acids which allows them to be at once sweet and richly fruited yet clean-tasting. At their worst, they are annoying, cloying and flabby.

Dessert wines are a luxury: made in small batches, sold in small bottles and served chilled, in small quantities. Often they are made from grapes harvested late in the season, so-called "late harvest wine," or from grapes frozen prior to pressing, so-called "ice wine." The classic French dessert wine, Sauternes, is actually made with grapes that have been subject to a strain of mold called botrytis or "noble rot." It sounds unglamorous, but the wine it produces is extraordinary.

We recently sampled 11 dessert wines, all from Virginia, and of the seven we recommend two are from Rockbridge Vineyards in Raphine: Dechiel Montebello Late Harvest Vidal 1997, and V d'Or Late Harvest Vidal 1997. Though both are vidal blanc, they come from different vines and are handled differently in the winery. The Montebello has a concentrated floral aroma with just a hint of citrus and a rich, unmistakable apricot flavor. The V d'Or, an ice wine, has a concentrated fruit aroma, and creamy, pineapple flavors. Either wine will pair with fruit and soft cheeses, fruit tarts and almond cake.

Our other favorite is Linden Vineyard's Late Harvest Vidal 1997. The flavors are so unified in this wine, and the wine so subtle that we struggled to identify and characterize them: It has a mineral aroma like sauvignon blanc, full rich fruit flavors and slight effervescence with a lingering amaretto finish. For pairing, stick with equally subtle desserts such as custards.

A very different wine from the previous vidals and one which we also recommend is Barboursville Vineyards' Malvaxia 1997; golden-colored, aromatic, rich and creamy, with spicy flavors and a toasted almond finish. Malvaxia would pair nicely with raisin bread pudding or similar desserts.

The main thing, though, is to be willing to try something different. Refuse the coffee, skip the latte, and ask for the wine list. Even if none of these wines is listed there, ask your server for a recommended pairing. Your reward will be sweet.

Sweet picks

Tasting notes and information on our top seven scorers, good on their own or with a dessert.

(90) Dechiel Montebello Late Harvest Vidal 1997 ($12) — Sweet and clean with a concentrated bouquet and apricot flavors; try with a fruit tart, soft cheese and strawberry shortcake.

(89) Linden Vineyards Late Harvest Vidal 1997 ($15) — Very subtle with a unified taste and amaretto finish; goes with subtle desserts.

(89) Rockbridge Vineyards V d'Or Late Harvest Vidal 1997 ($15) — This is an ice wine; concentrated fruit, creamy, pineapple flavors; serve with fruit tart, almond cake and anise biscotti.

(88) Barboursville Vineyards Malvaxia 1997 ($16) — Aromatic, creamy feel with notes of clove and other spices, toasted almond finish; try with bread pudding, or by itself.

(88) Lost Corner Wild River Red [NV] ($9) — Cranberry red, aroma of green strawberries; opens brackish, finishes off-dry with highly redacted tannins and lingering sweet notes; a blend of red wine with blackberries, the wine is nice but too stiff for fruit; try with chocolate, or by itself.

(88) Barboursville Phileo ($16) — Straw-colored with pear bouquet and finish; crisp acid; a blend of malvasia, muscat, traminer, and Riesling; match with fruit compote or crÅ me brulée.

(83) Williamsburg Winery Late Harvest Vidal 1996 ($14) — Different from the other vidals; scotch-colored with sherrylike aroma and creamy taste; finishes with toasted, nutty notes; good with shortbread.

Patrick Getlein is a wine columnist and consultant living in Richmond. His columns this summer will feature Virginia wines by variety. He may be reached through the editorial office at Style Weekly, 1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220; or by e-mail at

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