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

Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

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


Sara Benwell: I’ll admit it, I’m a rosé drinker

BEING IN PR I can recognise an image problem when I see one – and rosé wine has one of the worst image problems going. It has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years, but I still find that when you tell people you like a glass of rosé they look at you with a sneer or even disappointment.

But why is this? I’m the first to admit that there are some pretty awful rosé wines out there, but there are some wonderful ones too, and isn’t that also true for both red and white wine?

One of the greatest things about rosé is that it goes well with a whole variety of foods; in fact the closest thing I know of in terms of versatility is champagne. It’s less complex than some reds so it works particularly well with things like pork, chicken and unassuming fish – such as sole – and is often heralded as the wine of choice to accompany a number of international cuisines like Chinese and Indian.

The greatest rosé wines are fresh and lively, best drunk when young and have a hint of fruit that’s almost unbeatable in summer. Typical flavours you’re likely to notice are redcurrants or wild strawberries with hints of dried herbs, spice and floral notes. I also can’t over-stress to you the brilliance of a lot of rosé Champagnes.

So I’m going to bust some of the myths around rosé and try to show you why it’s one of my favourite drinks, particularly with summer (hopefully) just around the corner.

1. Rosé wine is always horribly sweet

I think part of the problem that people have when they think of rosé wine is they conjure up some of the popular sickly sweet wines of the past like Mateus or some white zinfandels.

Let me just begin by saying this: I am a dry wine drinker.  Just ask Geordie, who is constantly on the hunt for the driest white wines available in any given pub, wine bar, supermarket etc for me. So if it were true that all rosé wines were sweet, I’d be the last person trying to convince you to give it a shot. And the fact of the matter is that there are thousands of great dry rosé wines out there.

2. Rosé is for girls

Okay, I’ll admit pink is not necessarily the most manly of colours and rosé wine is definitely pink, but in the new age of metrosexuality (after all, nothing beats a man in a pink shirt) can we leave that aside for one second?

Now I think part of the problem here harkens back to point 1 above, but we’ve already established that not all rosé is sweet, so that deals with that. Even so, if I had a penny for every time a man says “I’m not drinking that, it’s a girl’s drink’ about rosé”, I’d be a very wealthy woman.

I think that anyone refusing to enter the world of rosé wine simply because it is ‘girly’ is cutting themselves off from a great selection of wonderful wines for virtually no reason at all.  These people just don’t deserve your respect.

3. Drinking pink wine is for novices

This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. People assume that the grown-ups and the wine-buffs don’t touch rosé and therefore they shouldn’t either. Well this just isn’t true. Any wine buff worth his (or her) salt will enjoy rosés as well as reds and whites.

And of course pink wine is enjoyed by serious wine lovers; if they didn’t it wouldn’t be produced by virtually every wine region you can name. The people who are really serious about wine will be precisely those who know how to sniff out a good rosé, and will be the first people to tell you just how good a decent dry rosé can be.

4. Rosé is cheap

Obviously, I’m talking about ‘cheapness’ rather than affordability here, and the assumption many people have is that rosé is synonymous with cheap and nasty – this is false.

Of course there are some cheap and nasty rosés out there, just like there are many cheap and nasty reds, whites, Champagnes, fizzy wines, etc, etc…but we don’t automatically rule out red wine just because there are some cheap reds out there, do we?

What I will say about rosé is that it is often very affordable, which is, generally speaking, a point in its favour. It also means that you can discover a whole multitude of great wines without breaking the bank. And just in case you’re the kind of person who thinks just because something is inexpensive it can’t be worthwhile (I really hope you’re not) then worry not, there are also some very delicious, very expensive rosés out there which I’m sure you will love!

So I want you all to put aside snobbery for the summer, and seek out some really great, fresh, lively fruity rosés, otherwise you’ll be missing out.

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