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Dessert wines from England – rare, but worth seeking out

Dessert wines from Knightor, Chapel Down, Astley, Three Choirs and Eglantine

Our line up, wines increasing in sweetness and alcohol from left to right

As I set down 5 bottles of dessert wine for the “Early Swirlers” tasting group, it occurred to me that apart from UKVA judges, there probably aren’t that many people who have had the chance to taste so many sweet wines from this country in a single flight.

I had collected some of the bottles on cellar door trips, another from Majestic and the final two from English Wine & Spirits Company and they had been building up until it was my turn to be Queen of the Leg Warmers – nothing kinky, that’s what passes for blind tasting covers out here in the country! Preparing the notes beforehand, it seemed a reasonable idea to taste the wines in increasing order of alcohol level…

On that basis, first up was Mena Hweg from Knightor, a new wine named after the Cornish translation of the grape Schönburger, meaning sweet or nice mountain. At just 7.5% alcohol, it is a semi-sweet wine, loosely inspired by Mosel style. This was the palest of the wines, with aromas of sherbet lemon and melting sugar. A light citrus (lime, perhaps?) on the palate, quite short, with nice acidity. It was definitely a “grower” and attitudes grew more favourable throughout the tasting. When we came back to it with food, it paired beautifully with Munster cheese, a washed rind style. Knightor say that Mena Hweg “can be enjoyed as an aperitif, a mid-meal palate cleaner or with a range of foods, especially savoury dishes with fruity or sweet elements.” It’s a style of wine most of us aren’t used to drinking, but I can definitely see the attraction of such a low alcohol wine, especially in the summer.

Number 2 was Chapel Down’s Nectar, slightly higher alcohol at 8% and a blend of Schönburger, Bacchus, Reichensteiner and Siegerrebe, a late harvest with a proportion of Botrytised grapes. This one gave aromas of lemon, cooked peach, grapefruit, a hint of honey and blackcurrant buds. Flavour here was slightly citrus, with honey and toffee; fresh and sweet. This was one we hadn’t tried before, went well with lightly sweet desserts and cheese and was generally well received – a good option for people who aren’t sure about desert wine (are there such people?!)

Wine and Cheese Co

Great cheese and advice from The Cheese and Wine Company

Next up, an old favourite of the group, Astley Late Harvest 2011 from Worcestershire, 100% Siegerrebe and 9.5% alcohol. Described as not truly a dessert wine, but “sweet enough to accompany a variety of creamy puddings and tasty cheeses.” As might be expected, the aromas were warming up – warmed honey, caramel, a hint of vanilla, but a freshness of green pea and spearmint. Flavours of citrus, a hint of honey, a longer flavour with a hint of burnt caramel, well balanced with a hint of marmalade bitterness. When we came on to food matching later, I thought it was particularly good with apple tart, an idea I had recalled Nyetimber serving with their Demi-Sec.

At number 4, another 2011 Late Harvest, this time from Three Choirs and a blend of Siegerrebe and Schönburger with 10.5% alcohol. Aromas of orange blossom, honey, apricot and hay with muscat grape. It was described as “a product of warmer autumns, a luscious but not overly sweet dessert wine”. We detected flavours of gooseberry and that attractive hint of bitterness again.

Brix 46 milk

Brix 46% milk chocolate for dessert wines – you can have chocolate with wine, but only the sweetest ones

Finally a wine I had been really excited to try, Eglantine North Star 2011, 100% Madeleine Angevine. The winner of many awards and England’s answer to ice wine. This was a rich golden colour with rich aromas summarised as Christmas pudding in a glass. The flavour was reminiscent of Christmas pudding too, this was the only wine that really was sweet and I loved one taster’s description as being “like Calvados made with toffee apples”, but again a pleasing acidity and very long. This was the only wine that we enjoyed with the really sweet food pairings I had brought, like macaroons and chocolate, although it was also good with Blue Murder cheese.

That was pretty much all of the dessert wines I could get hold of, but even in those 5 there was a great range of sweetness, all with a nice balance of acidity, so something for every mood and food pairing. For those of us very partial to dessert wine, it’s a shame that not every year provides the conditions for a late harvest wine, but that adds to the rarity and mystique, too. Even those producers that make a sweetie each year often sell out, so you have too keep your eyes peeled. With such good conditions this year there are rumours of a some new ones, including reputed winemaker Owen Elias planning to make one for new vineyard Kinsgcote and Denbies are talking about it too, so that’s definitely a couple to look out for and we’ll be sure to report on any more we hear of – do let us know if you find one before we do.

Credits: Thanks to The Cheese & Wine Co. in Hampton for suggesting the cheese choices and to The Wine Gift Centre for giving us samples of Brix Chocolate for Dessert Wine to try.