Autumn colours swiftly make a splash through the vineyards as winter slowly creeps in on the Western Cape. Driving along one of the country’s beautiful wine routes, one can’t help but gaze at the beautiful canvas-like vineyards, painted with beautiful shades of amber reds, burnt oranges and golden yellows that would make the sunset jealous.
Something else comes to mind as these colours flash in front of me, it’s the season of blazing, wood-crackling fires and dessert wine. Much like the vineyards’ deep reds, I am reminded of a lively, warm Cape Vintage. The infamous South African dessert wine, made in a Portuguese style that mimics Port, yields a flavoursome battle between the sweet, red berry and stewed fruit characters of red wine cultivars and the warm cinnamon, dark chocolate and smoky wood aromas. A Cape Vintage is the ideal dessert wine style for the sweet-toothed red wine fanatic.
The more famous South African anti-freeze, Old Brown Sherry, is loved by many. It has a slight bitterness that cuts through the sweetness of traditional dessert wines, while it creates a small fire that grows in centre of one’s body. Apparently, OBS isn’t only good for the creaking bones of a cold human body in the heart of winter. While visiting family friends, I noticed my mother’s friend, Sandra, giving a small tot of OBS to her well-aged cat, Patsy. I stared in disbelief as Patsy lapped up every morsel of OBS, while Sandra explained that it keeps her nice and warm and provides some relief to her arthritic joints. I am by no means telling anyone to feed their four-legged companions alcohol, but if the little critters are as eager to lap up a drop or two as Patsy is, why not spare them a tiny tot?
This brings me onto our next dessert wine, while the golden colours of the vineyard grow darker its hard not to think of the beautiful liquid gold Noble Late Harvests and Hannepoots. My horse, Sunny, ironically enjoys a drop of sunshine (Hannepoot) every now and then too. Noble Late Harvest dessert wines can be made in two very definitive styles: The sweeter than honey, apricot jam and guava roll-loaded syrupy delight and the tart, yet perfectly balanced, lighter styles that focus more on the stone fruit characteristics while preserving some of the fresh cultivar acidity. Both styles are equally enjoyable, I often find myself enjoying the former with a dense, full fat vanilla ice-cream, while the latter style I prefer in a glass, as a post-dinner delight. What makes Noble Late Harvest different to other dessert wine styles, is that it cannot always be achieved every vintage and relies solely on the climatic conditions and terroir. Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, is a type of mould that forms in the vineyard under the right micro-climatic conditions. It not only brings intense flavours out of the berries, but it also allows for a much more concentrated sugar level. These wines are often tricky to work with due to their higher viscosity and may take a few filtration and fining attempts to master, however the end result is well worth the hard work and determination.
The orange hues of the vineyard remind me of a well-aged Muscadel, with its sweet scent of raisins and apricots, who wouldn’t love this winter-warmer? I recently tasted a 2009 vintage, which had been aged in small 50l oak barrels for 5 years. The beautiful cinnamon-like scents enthralled with the raisiny sweetness are the perfect plus one for a chilly autumn evening.
Another popular dessert wine style, with a slight fiery kick to it, is the much loved Jerepico. The winemaking process is described as a marriage of the alcohol and wine components, and there is no better way to describe it. The sweet must forms a perfect balance with the warmth of the alcohol, whilst wood aging provides a lovely undertone of nutmeg and cinnamon spices.
Dessert wines are not only enjoyed in winter, I have often been told that noble late harvest wines pair perfectly with a dollop of ice cream on a warm day. These wine styles can often act as a syrup substitute and taste extraordinary when drizzled over various cold desserts. I personally enjoy sweeter wines as a stand-alone dessert, nothing beats a small glass of chilled Muscadel or Noble Late Harvest on a warm summers evening after a braai.
Although dessert wines are not always found on a conventional tasting room wine list, if you do find one or two I would definitely suggest giving them a try. If you are particularly set on a specific wine style, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. A full, hearty glass of Cape Vintage could be just as enjoyable as a full bodied red, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.