by Melissa Vogt
With the onset of the holiday season, there’s no shortage of comfort food, decadent desserts, and an endless array of festive beverages. So stocking wine selections in preparation for celebratory feasts and tablescapes this holiday is a must, and dessert wines from Napa Valley shouldn’t be overlooked.
While dry wines are usually the go-to for pairing with traditional holiday meals, dessert wines also have a place on the table. The higher sugar content and bright acidity of dessert wines are ideal for creative food pairings. They can be great served with hors d’oeuvres, think cheese and charcuterie trays or crostini smeared with sweet jams and honey. During the main course, dessert wines lend themselves nicely to savory dishes like cream-based soups or cheese-infused potato au gratins. But most of all, dessert wines pair exceptionally well and most naturally with desserts—whether it’s an after-dinner aged cheese plate or savory favorites like pumpkin pie, pecan pie, or cheesecake.
Dessert wines are a labor of love and, because of that, are limited across the Valley. “Dessert wine is something we produce because we love it, and we only make it during years that we feel the grapes are showing exceptionally and will create a beautiful wine,” said Todd Graff, General Manager of Frank Family Vineyards. Because the grapes must be just right to craft a dessert wine, quantity is very limited, but splurging on a local dessert wine is well worth it as bottlings are inherently high quality due to the meticulous vineyard care, harvesting, and nature of production.
The best dessert wines strike the right balance between sweetness and acidity to lend themselves well to pairing with a vast array of culinary flavors, and select Napa Valley producers are bringing their very best to the holiday season table.
STYLES of DESSERT WINE
Dessert wines are made from the same grapes as still wines. The simple difference is that fermentation is stopped early before the yeast converts too much sugar into alcohol. Dessert wines can be classified into many categories. Here is a handful of some of the most popular styles: sparkling dessert wine, sweet dessert wine, and fortified wines.
Sparkling Dessert Wine
Sparkling dessert wines offer a nice balance between effervescent acidity and varying degrees of sweetness. They can be made in styles ranging from demi-sec (off-dry) to moelleux (very sweet). At Artesa Vineyards & Winery, the estate crafted their first Grand Reserve Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine this year in homage to their Catalan roots. “Artesa was founded as a sparkling house by the Codorniu family, creators of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) over thirty years ago,” said Ana Diogo-Draper, winemaker at Artesa Vineyards & Winery. “We have always produced sparkling at Artesa, however, all our sparkling and still wines have always been dry. Due to demand by our Wine Club for a sweeter wine, we felt launching a Demi-Sec Sparkling was a perfect fit for Artesa as we continue to expand our sparkling offerings.” The inaugural bottle is just in time for the holidays with ripe notes of peach, honeydew, and praline; it shows off its brilliant acidity juxtaposed against subtle sweetness, all wrapped up in a rich and silky profile dealt by six years of lees contact.
Sweet Dessert Wines: Late Harvest + Botrytis
Sweet dessert wines can be anything from an off-dry Riesling to a Sauternes-style wine made from Botrytized grapes to late-harvest expressions. Late harvest wines are made from grapes that hang on the vine much longer than grapes used for making dry wines; they possess a much more concentrated flavor and much higher sugar levels. Frank Family Vineyards crafts a Late Harvest Chardonnay with aromas of honey, chamomile, caramel, and butterscotch; the palate is luscious and rich with notes of candied orange and honey—this is a nice match for a cheese plate, as the rich sweetness offers balances against the salty and savory quality of cheese.
Dolce, produced by the makers at Far Niente Winery, is a nod to the Sauternes style of dessert wine made with Botrytis grapes and comprises 90% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. The Coombsville vineyard at the base of the Vaca Mountains is protected from the winds, allowing the cool fog to hang longer. “For the harvest of Dolce, we wait for botrytis to take place naturally in the vineyard but do everything we can to promote it,” stated Greg Allen, winemaker at Dolce. As a result, the vineyard doesn’t always see Botrytis, but when it does, the Dolce bottling is crafted in highly limited quantities. Sweet orange and apricot aromas open on the nose while the palate offers rich vanilla bean pots de crème. It has a rich, round, and silky profile that begs for savory dessert recipes like a pecan pie or crème brûlée.
Sweet wines made in the fortified style have a distilled spirit added to them; this increases the alcohol content and fortifies the wine. The fortified wines category is vast and includes bottlings such as Port, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala, and more. In Napa Valley, Prager Port Works is most well-known for its Port-style dessert wines, of which they produce many. While traditional Port requires that it be made in Portugal from specific grape varieties, local expressions of Port-style wines pay homage to the style with varieties grown in Napa Valley.
At Prager Port Works, the estate produces red port, white port, and tawny port. Their classic Prager Port is a blend of Tinta Roriz, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon; it is aged for 32 months in neutral oak barrels and showcases cherry notes, dark chocolate, and currants. They make a couple of different white ports, one of which is made from 100% Napa Valley Chardonnay grapes; the Aria sees three and a half years in neutral oak and is versatile with a wide variety of foods. Their Noble Companion Ten-Year-Old Tawny Port is one of their pinnacle offerings, with more than ten years of aging in neutral oak barrels and boasts notes of rich caramel and nuts framed by vibrant acidity.
With so many sparkling, sweet, and fortified wines from which to choose, local winemakers are keeping holiday tables full of sweet Napa Valley bounty.
DESSERT WINE & HOLIDAY PAIRINGS
Dolce + Mascarpone Ravioli
“Dolce and Mascarpone Ravioli is a pairing that is unmatched. The 2001 Dolce has nuances of white truffle amongst the familiar fruitful notes and was particularly well suited for pairing with ravioli filled with mascarpone and finished with a truffle-based sauce. The soft and creamy texture of the ravioli was perfectly matched by Dolce. While pairing Dolce with a crème brulee seems like the ideal, we love to explore savory pairings.”
– Greg Allen, Dolce Winemaker
Frank Family Vineyards Late Harvest Chardonnay + Thanksgiving Pies
“This wine goes phenomenally with Thanksgiving pies such as pecan or pumpkin, which bring out the layers of spice and honey. Even a more fruit-forward pie such as apple would go well with this wine’s intense aromas of dried apricots, quince paste, and hints of pear.”
– Todd Graff, Frank Family Vineyards Winemaker and General Manager
Artesa Vineyards & Winery Sparkling Demi-Sec + Cheese and Tart Desserts
“A perfect holiday pairing for the Demi-Sec Sparkling would be a tart cheese, such as a Manchego paired with quince, or a tart dessert. Images of cranberries – cranberry crumble, cranberry trifle or even cranberry and chocolate cookies would be a great match for this wine.”
– Ana Diogo-Draper, Artesa Vineyards & Winery Winemaker