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Wine Tip of the Week: Wine as Dessert

Editor’s Note: This is an exert from author John Hailman’s book The Search for Good Wine. This particular chapter was written on November 13, 1988.
cake-or-wine_300Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, probably trying to cheer herself up about getting old, once wrote “the last of life, for which the first was made.” Whatever the merits of her idea generally, it is true for dinner: The best part for me was always dessert. Yet it used to be in that part where U.S. wines failed to measure up to French and German wines. At last that’s changed.
Now there are so many good, new American-made dessert wines, mainly from California, that it is hard to tell which is best, although I will have a suggestion later. Probably the :first good sweet wine from the United States that I appreciated was the muscat of Frontignan from BV. It is still available, and for wines with a little brandy added, it is still probably the best.
Next came Robert Mondavi’s moscato d’oro, a unique treat and unbeatable by itself for quie1 sipping. But for really sweet foods, chocolate being the ultimate test, even the Mondavi was too light. Only true French sauternes from Bordeaux would do. And for those with a tooth for Sauternes, the 1970s were grim times. Several of the oldest chateau producing those great and venerable wines fell upon hard times, some were sold and some were even in bankruptcy.
Then, just as all seemed grimmest for Sauternes, which are incredibly expensive to produce, but which sell for less than most red Bordeaux, along came California. With the true spirit of independence and sheer cussedness that has always marked Sauternes-like wines, American vintners ignored the apparent lack of any market for such delicacies.
Sauternes, like a German auslese (pronounced “owss-lay-zuh”), can be made only from grapes picked very late in the year, when shriveled and dried and gross-looking, long after all reasonable wines are already in the cask. It was such wines that a few California vintners sought to make. Several, including that ever-present pioneer, Mondavi, made some very fine late-harvested sauvignon blancs which tasted much like Sauternes.
wine_with_chocolate_dessertBut it was the great Joseph Phelps who first convinced me that late-harvest wines in the United States could be as good as those of Europe. Ironically, it was a Phelps late-harvest Riesling that brought me over. When old in the bottle and turning amber and even orange, it was ambrosial, tasting like a distinguished old apricot that had died and gone to heaven. This wine, while still distinctly American, was as good as German.
Then Phelps returned, this time with a wine from the second white grape of Bordeaux, the semillon, which had rarely made a dry wine above mediocre for any U.S. winemaker. The 1985 Phelps, officially called Delices du Semillon (a very apt title), is the closest thing we will get to Sauternes on this side of the Atlantic in my lifetime. In fact, it is so much better than anything I had hoped for that I would swap most any good sauternes I’ve got for just a half-bottle. After two taste: of the 1986, I’ll say it is as good as the ’85, perhaps lighter, but subtle and fine.
Stealing a half-tad from Rupert Brooke, the World War I poet, I will say that, “If I should die, say only this of me: There is some comer of Hailman that is forever Delices du Semillon.” This wine does not just go with dessert.
hailmanJohn Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

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