Sara Benwell: The dessert wine that blew my mind

I’ve never been a big drinker of dessert wine. I always complained that it was too sweet and too sickly, and just not in line with my taste at all.

As someone who frequently berates the closed-minded and says you should never rule out an entire genre (can you have a genre of wine?) based on past experiences, I’ll admit that this was a little two-faced, but to be fair, I spent years saying “I’ll try a sip” and then hating it.

Hating it, until I tried a glass of dessert wine that totally and utterly blew my mind. I was at a client dinner where someone ordered a bottle. They offered it my way and I asked for my usual thumbnail – then it utterly blew my socks off.

I am a changed woman.

In Rome with Geordie I was after dessert wine all the time, trying to find something that compared to that first good glass (or three; if I remember correctly everyone was so enchanted by the aforementioned dessert wine I think we had another bottle or two).

What I learnt was that dessert wine comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours, and that even I can find a few that appeal to my ‘I like my wine dry as the Sahara’ palate.

Actually, one has to wonder who I’ve been drinking with all these years that I’d not had this revelation before? I suspect I’d been so blinded by past experience that I wasn’t willing to try and hunt for the impossible – a dessert wine that I’d like.

So why this ode to dessert wine? Well I can’t be the only person out there who’s dismissed it out of hand, so in true Sara style I’m going to myth-bust dessert wine, if only because the more people drink it, the more often I’ll discover something delightful!

Myth #1: Sweet means cloying

I think the main problem I had was that in my mind I associated sweet with cloying, and that probably isn’t very fair.  Sweet wines vary as much as (if not more than) dry wine and, while a fair few dessert wines leave me with a heavy, syrupy, unpleasant taste in my mouth, with the greats, of which there are many, I taste richness instead.

Myth #2: Dessert wines have to go with pudding

Well this just plainly isn’t true.  In fact, as someone who doesn’t really like puddings, I’m embracing pudding wine as my go-to alternative. It’s so dreary being the one who opts for a coffee when everyone else is having sticky toffee pudding, but I’d rather have a dessert wine anyway – and it means I don’t look like a spoilsport.

As a side note, dessert wines don’t even have to be drunk at the end of the meal. There are far more knowledgeable people than me who recommend any number of dessert wines as an aperitif, and the same number again will laud the pairing of certain dessert wines with appetisers.

Sauternes with fois gras is one that comes up a lot, but there’s a whole multitude of other pairings that make much more interesting combinations.

Myth #3: All dessert wines are the same

I’m embarrassed to even admit that I actually thought this, once upon a time, and obviously I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dessert wines are super-complicated. For starters the many different ways you can make dessert wines is astonishing.

For instance you can get botrytis wines that are made from grapes that have been exposed to a type of fungus that dehydrates the grape. The most famous of which include Sauternes. There are also wines made from grapes that are picked later meaning that the grapes have extra sugar.

There’s also a huge icewine market; Canadian producers are particularly good at this (go figure, it’s cold there…) and have cornered the market.  Somewhat opposite to this, you can also let the fruits dry out and get dessert wine that is sometimes called ‘raisin wine’.

Anyway, the point is that dessert wine has masses of variety, and some of them are enchanting, I was ruling them out on the basis of drinking a lot of very mediocre (read: bad) glasses, but I wasn’t exploring options properly (read: without bias).

Dessert wines are complicated to make, and take a lot of work, so if you find the right bottles you’ll have some real stunners on your hands.

The verdict

A final note, I’m not really talking about sherry or port here. Sherry and port are two of my favourite things to drink, but I was indoctrinated into them  far earlier so needed no convincing.

Take it from me though, if you’ve ever thought to yourself “I hate all dessert wine, it’s too sweet” etc, think again, do some research, and prepare your wallet, because once you’ve tried the right dessert wine, you’ll never look back!

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. Follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

Castillon: Fashionably unfashionable

Castillon: it’s getting better and better

Sometimes this whole wine tasting lark opens my eyes to the fact even the most expensive bottles on show don’t necessarily lead to as much satisfaction as, say, that miracle find that cost me less than a tenner.

There I was the other week at the Laithwaite’s press tasting and then a dinner with the managing director of CA Grands Crus, alternating between fine wines from lust-worthy chateaux and reassuringly delicious offerings for midweek drinking.

At the Laithwaite’s event we rolled in at about 3 p.m. with every expectation of slowly working our way through everything they had on show – only to edit out large swathes of wine from the start. Turns out the doors were being shut at 5 p.m. and, given our tendency for non-stop childish banter between each taste, it was going to take several hours to work through the trove ahead of us.

More often than not I found immense satisfaction in wines that came with most price tags as opposed to the icons, giving me reassurance there is hope yet for the punter who can’t – or won’t – pay for the posh stuff.

One of my favourite wines was an affordable viognier in a sexy bottle that plunges from a wide base into an almost too-delicate neck, reminiscent of the new Bollinger Champagne vessel.

Now, I’m not going to say I don’t love expensive wines because that would be a) a lie and b) hypocritical since my cellar is littered with things that you will never see on a half-price offer at Tesco, let alone for sale in a supermarket.

Some of the most memorable drinks I’ve ever tasted have been Lafite, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and so on. The last thing I will do is tell you expensive wine isn’t any good, because so much of it is, in fact, really rather amazing. I would bathe in them if this was 1) in any way beneficial and 2) financially attainable.

But everyday life is not about drinking first growths. Not if you’re a journalist like me who earns less in a year than Bill Clinton is paid for a single after-dinner speech.

So with that rather sobering thought in mind, it is reassuring I can still find amazing value within my limited budget, the sort that makes you lean back in your chair with incredulity.

Enter Chateau Tertre de Belvés, a wine from the somewhat unfashionable but up-and-coming Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux appellation. This is the place where Tony Laithwaite has his vineyard and French winemaking base even though many of the snootier types turn their noses up at the appellation’s wines.

At the recent #7wordwinereview dinner, this was the wine I pulled out of my cellar to share with the group. It was bought two years ago from the Cafe a Vin at Le Comptoir de Genès, a restaurant/bar/market located a few minutes away from Castillon an one of my local hangouts when I’m in the area.

A few hours before the dinner I nearly decided to go to a shop to buy something different. I’m glad I didn’t, because it received more accolades than most wines that have ever been served at that table, and certainly more than anything I’ve brought in the past.

This bottle cost me no more than £10. But the first time my English friend and I tried it, at The Winemaker’s vineyard back in 2010, we knew it was good. The oak on the nose, the fruit on the palate. While not a perfect wine – it is a bit rough and ready and is missing a few things on the palate here and there – its value for money and rustic charm make it a hit.

And that is the whole point about wine appreciation. If a bottle can bring a smile to your face, it matters very little how much it cost.

Other Castillon wines worth a try:

Mini bottles of Sauternes. My new favourite thing!

We all know it’s popular to buy Sauternes in half-bottles, but what about an even smaller format with a handy screw cap?

That’s what I have here – four of them.

At a recent dinner with Thierry Budin of CA Grands Crus, the part of French bank Credit Agricole that manages a range of vineyards across France, I was handed this four-pack after saying my goodbyes. (Full disclosure: the dinner was organised and paid for by CA Grands Crus. The bottles of wine were in a gift bag given to me at the end of the dinner. My intention is to share these bottles with friends because of their status as freebies.)

The bottles, from Sauternes estate Chateau de Rayne Vigneau, hold  250 ml of the sticky stuff and, thanks to the screw cap, make it easy to take on a picnic where you might not want to drink it all at once.

Normally I’d say 250 ml would be the perfect amount for one person to drink, but because this is a sweet wine I think they are on the slightly large side. Perfect, then, to share with someone else.

Sadly, I doubt these bottles are on general sale to the public. Can you imagine a top-end Sauternes estate selling in such a format under screw cap of all things? Sacre blue!

Fake bottles and dopers: A treatise on cheating

Anyone who knows me is likely aware there are two things I love in equal measure: wine and cycling.

While it seems the two topics are as different from each other as carbon fibre and malolactic fermentation, there is one way in which they are very similar – and it’s something few people might have thought about before.

Bear with me, because this is perhaps one of the most tenuous links I’ve ever made and potentially one of the most barmy things I’ve ever written. But don’t worry; I’m not going to get all philosophical here. There will be no treatise on cycling and wine, no ode to the bike and the bottle.

No rhyming couplets about riding through the vineyards of Bordeaux.

No rambling words extolling the virtues of a fine right bank merlot.

Absolutely, certainly, most definitely: a big fat no.

Instead, I’m going to talk about cheating and lies, two things that have done a disservice to cycling and fine wine, and unfortunately show little sign of abating any time soon.

I started thinking about all of this not long after I heard the news American cyclist Lance Armstrong gave up defending himself against the US Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs during his career.

Doping is a topic many cycling fanatics hate to discuss most of all, primarily because it is a constant reminder the sport has a shady underbelly where dishonest people cheat for personal gain.

And while the Lance Armstrong story has been rumbling on for years, fresh allegations of cheating in the sport never fail to send daggers through the hearts those who wanted to believe the sport had changed for the better.

The cycling world has endured much disappointment in the past 20 years. So many of the most famous names, the biggest icons, turned out to be little more than fakes.

Unfortunately we are finding the same to be true in the wine world. And we need not look back too far in time to find the sorry evidence.

In the first half of this year it seemed the wine world was collapsing upon itself like a house of cards. Rudy Kurniawan was indicted in the spring for allegedly selling $1.3-million worth of fake wine, while in June directors at Burgundy negociant Labouré-Roi were detained under suspicion the firm faked two million bottles of wine.

Things have become so bad that some experts suggest a great deal of wine, mostly old Burgundy, sold at auction around the world is actually fake. Rather than coming from the finest grand cru vineyards, they are, in fact, no finer than a bottle of basic vin de pays.

So what is a wine drinker to do? Well as any fule kno, if you play with fire, there’s a chance you’ll get burned. When doping got out of hand in cycling, German broadcasters that were sick of being let down by the sport took the extreme measure of pulling their Tour de France coverage. Should fine wine collectors and investors boycott auctions where the old Burgundy looks too good to be true?

Put it this way. If no one bought Rudy Kurniawan’s wine, would he have made it as far as he did?

Yet another useless wine gadget: Bosch IXO Vino electric corkscrew

I love useless wine accessories. I don’t actually own any myself, but discovering them and trying to wrap my head around the reasons why they were developed is where the entertainment value lies. Using them, I figure, wouldn’t be half the fun.

It seems one of the most popular accessories to reinvent in an over-complicated way and sell for an extortionate price is the corkscrew. Given its simplicity, you would think there isn’t much that can be done to improve on it – but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

Now, if I were Norm Abram, the American carpenter of This Old House fame who seems always to have a power tool for every task, I might want my corkscrew to have a little more, er, oomph behind it.

I thought I’d seen everything, but I must have had my head under a rock for the past couple of years because nothing prepared me for the moment when I came across the Bosch IXO Vino cordless screwdriver with corkscrew adapter.

Yes, that’s right. Bosch took its cordless screwdriver, a tool whose existence is already somewhat pointless, and improved it by…adding the word “Vino” to the name and adapting what looks like a Screwpull corkscrew to fit onto its chuck.

To reassure you this is a serious oenophile’s tool, it comes in a wooden box – because that’s how expensive wine is shipped, you know.

But wait, there’s more. Just in case you thought this was a wine-specific version of the electric screwdriver, Bosch has kindly included 10 regular screwdriver bits so that they say can be used on “conventional” applications as well, making the “IXO Vino special edition a truly multi-talented tool for wine enthusiasts and for everyone who wants to improve their home.”

Retailing at £59.99 but currently priced at £40.90 from Amazon (although cheaper elsewhere), it isn’t exactly a cheap corkscrew given the fact I could buy a simple waiter’s friend for as little as £2.

But at least Bosch is offering more for your money than what you get from Campagnolo when you buy their massively overpriced BIG Corkscrew, which sells for more than £100 and makes you do all the work yourself.  Same, too, with the similar bit smaller Campagnolo Miro corkscrew, which will still set you back a hefty £61 and, shame of all shames, isn’t even electronic.

One only wonders why products like these are thought up in the first place. Perhaps it is ideal for people who are unable to use traditional corkscrews, but I can’t help but think it is a clumsy choice compared to other option out there (I’m thinking the single lever-style corkscrews).

I can only assume, then, that someone at Bosch has gone completely mad and though this would add value to their product range. With that in mind, where is the battery-powered cordless foil remover or the automated, electric pourer/decanter? Stopping at just a corkscrew attachment for an electric screwdriver screams missed opportunity to me. They should have gone for a full range of accessories no one needs.