Many dessert wines gain their unique flavours from a fungus or grey rot that infects the grapes as they ripen, it is this rot that makes all the difference and adds so much extra character to the final wine.
Why rot is desirable for dessert wines.
The rot caused by a grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea infects the grapes, and should the weather conditions allow, and the natural sugars be high enough, the condition is termed "noble rot".
What happens is, in drier conditions and if the infected grapes are very ripe the fungus infestation will feed on these sugars producing unique concentrated flavours.
However, should the weather be continually damp and wet, the fungus develops into the malevolent form called "grey rot" or "ignoble rot".
This nasty version can wipe out grape crops completely.
When infested grapes are exposed to much drier conditions they can eventually turn into raisins, it is these grapes that are so highly prized by winemakers as the juice becomes so concentrated and luscious as the grapes dry out.
The wine made from this nectar is the desirable botrytized dessert wine.
At harvest time on some wine estates, pickers will make several passes through the vineyard, picking the grapes berry by berry in order to capture the essence of every individual grape as it develops.
This harvesting method cannot be mechanised and must be done by hand, so it is no wonder that most of the worlds top dessert wines command premium prices.
The difference between sweet wines and dessert wines.
Just because a wine may be sweet does not necessarily make it a dessert wine.
Dessert wines with their high concentration of natural sugar are higher in alcohol, whereas ordinary sweet wines are considerably thinner in body and have much lower alcohols.
Sweet wines are often made by adding unfermented grape juice to a dry base wine, this is a technique developed in Germany many years ago.
The main factor about the high sweetness concentration in a dessert wine is that it is slightly viscous or sticky, in Australia these wines are known as 'stickies'.
Dessert wines pair perfectly with rich puddings.
A dessert wine is so called as it pairs so perfectly with so many rich puddings or desserts.
It is important to remember that the wine must be sweeter than its complementary dish, otherwise the wine will taste sharp and acidic.
Where chocolate is involved, it is wise to match the lighter flavoured type of chocolate desserts with similar lighter bodied wines.
Whereas, the bitter, stronger versions will go well with heavier, fuller bodied wines.
A good example of a correct match is to pair a 'big' Zinfandel from California with a rich, bittersweet chocolate dessert.
Make a good pairing and both the food and the wine will emphasise each other.
Get it wrong - disaster! When you have a dessert wine with the noble rot connection, you've found nectar befitting the gods.
These gorgeous rich wines are so rare and special, that they should be sipped and not slurped, and savoured with like-minded appreciative wine enthusiasts!