Life is Sweet – An English Dessert Wine Tasting
We do love a sticky here at Wine Cellar Door. Both Elisabeth and I snap up English dessert wines wherever and whenever we can, and because they are generally made in tiny quantities, they usually sell out fast. Elisabeth wrote about these rare delights in November 2014 and since then I’ve been building a large collection of little bottles which it was recently time to open.
We got together with friends and tasted 11 wines in all – as far we know the first time that examples from so many different producers had been tasted together. The tasting was structured in such a way that we could make useful comparisons between wines and match them with different dishes. It was surprising to find out just how versatile sweet wines are with food.
We began with a couple of sparkling wines. Despite the growing popularity of English sparkling wine, little is made in a semi-sweet style, where a sweeter dosage is added to the wine after disgorgement. Nyetimber were the first, and for a long time only, producer to do so, with their Demi Sec made from 100% Chardonnay. It’s tremendously approachable, with typical Nyetimber softness and perfect balance. This is the wine I serve to people who claim they don’t like champagne or sparkling wine – it usually wins them over. It was paired with another delicious example from Ambriel, whose English Reserve is 100% Pinot Noir from a single plot of their West Sussex vineyard. Limited to just 1,000 bottles, its limey acidity was a perfect match with freshly-baked honey and rosewater madeleines. If you like the sound of those, keep an eye out for Denbies Demi-Sec, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from the 2008 vintage, and a forthcoming sweet number from Cornwall’s Camel Valley.
Next we tasted through a number of late harvest wines, where the sweetness level of the grapes has been raised by them being left on the vine for as long as possible to achieve a higher level of ripeness and grape sugars. The first of these was Biddenden Scheurebe 2011 from Kent, which had savoury, slightly smoky notes and a good length of flavour. This wine is 100% Scheurebe, an aromatic German grape variety typical of the many planted in England 10-20 years BN (Before Nyetimber). This and the Somerby Vineyards Ampulla 2014 which followed were both very bright and fresh, sweet but not overly so and more suited as an aperitif wine than as a full-on match for desserts. Somerby Vineyard produce a commendable range of red, white, rosé and sparkling wine from a sheltered spot in north Lincolnshire and this wine, of which only 300 bottles were produced, is unusually made from 100% Solaris.
A step or two up the sweetness scale was Chapel Down Nectar Late Harvest 2013. A blend of 4 aromatic grape varieties (Schönburger, Bacchus, Reichensteiner and Seigerrebe) which are combined to make a light and fragrant sweet wine, rich with tropical fruit flavours. This is another crowd-pleaser and everyone agreed that the complexity gives it all-round appeal.
Two more late harvest wines completed the group, both from 2011 – Three Choirs Vineyards Cellar Door Release Late Harvest and Astley Late Harvest. Both are made by award-winning winemaker Martin Fowke at Three Choirs in Gloucestershire from 100% Siegerrebe. The first is sold exclusively from the cellar door at their Gloucestershire winery, restaurant and rooms. The Astley wine is produced from low yielding vines from a vineyard originally planted in 1971 and where the vines are trellised in such a way as to allow the grapes to hang on the vine for longer. It’s a lovely wine and a great match for fresh fig and Stilton salad with date dressing.
The late harvest wines paired well with cheese. Notable on our cheese board was Stichleton (a blue cheese much like Stilton), Keen’s Cheddar and Riseley, a delicious washed-rind cheese from Berkshire. These were also a great match with the next wine, Denbies Noble Harvest Botrytis Dessert Wine 2014, which was in a category of its own. It’s produced in the same way as the world’s most famous sweet wine, Sauternes, where the grapes are affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. The mould removes water from the grapes, intensifying the sweetness of the remaining liquid when the grapes are pressed. This grapes in this case are Ortega, crushed and then macerated (like a red wine) for 12 hours before being pressed for 12 more. Half of the wine was then vinified in oak and half in stainless steel and partly matured in oak to further enhance the flavours. The quality of the wine shines through.
The final three wines were the richest and sweetest. The first was The Philosopher Ortega Late Harvest 2013, a limited edition first vintage dessert wine from Westwell Wines, a 13 acre vineyard in Kent who produce sparkling and still wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Ortega. For The Philosopher, the Ortega grapes are frozen to -8c after harvesting and then pressed. The water (as ice crystals) remains in the grapes while the sweet must (juice) is squeezed out, producing a wine akin to the ice wines of Canada and Germany, where the grapes freeze naturally while still on the vine. I really liked this wine which had Reisling-like aromas and real poise and I’m rather glad I’ve got another bottle of this (hand-numbered 094) in my cellar.
The penultimate wine, Eglantine Vineyard North Star 2011, is an unctuous sticky made from 100% Madeleine Angevine grapes grown behind Tony and Veronica Skuriat’s house in Costock, near Nottingham and made in their small adjacent winery. Packed with orange marmalade and toffee flavours this is dessert wine writ large. It is a rich golden colour, finely presented in a tall, clear bottle and has reassuringly been produced again in 2014 following a good summer for English dessert wines. It was a wonderful match for a delicious pear tarte tatin.
Finally, it was Hattingley Valley Entice Dessert Wine 2014, the first, eagerly-awaited dessert wine from this leading English sparkling wine producer. For this wine, late harvested Bacchus grapes are frozen to -10c and then pressed for 36 hours to release the maximum fruit flavours. The Bacchus typicity comes through, giving the wine a lightness and hints of the hedgerow aromas common with this variety. Like all of the wines tasted, regardless of variety or production method, it’s not at all cloying. The acidity in English dessert wine cuts through the sweetness, making them a pleasure to drink and perfect to pair with cake, fruit, cheese and puddings, such as in this case with Earl Grey spiced prunes with baked Marsala custard.
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