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How Sweet It Is : Dessert Wines Make Fragrant Holiday Memories


IN THE WORLD of sensory delights, taste and smell make almost indelible impressions upon memory, triggered by a whiff of perfume or a curiously wonderful taste. The mind harbors glorious first impressions as a kind of warehouse for pleasure against more shadowy times.

In the category of the world's greatest wines, the golden Sauternes of the Chateau d'Yquem enjoys universal fame as a nectar as sweet as, but better than, honey. Nearly everyone who has tasted it can instantly place that first time, including not only the occasion but the surroundings. There's just something about those magnificently made sweet wines that gives them their intrinsic nobility and unforgettable taste. I was not yet in my teens when, as a very special after-dinner Christmas treat, my favorite aunt offered me my own glass, little bigger than a thimble, of the golden Yquem. It was in the afternoon, candles burning as the winter sun brought on early evening. The liquid seemed like some magic potion--obviously never forgotten.

Chateau d'Yquem and the great trockenbeerenauslese sugar-rich wines of Germany owe their honeyed character to a peculiar fungus, a benevolent mold that develops under humid conditions as ripe clusters of grapes approach their moment of harvest. The agency of this "noble rot" is Botrytis cinerea. Spores of the fungus rapidly feed on the juicy berries by penetrating the microscopic pores of the grape skin. The berries will shrivel, losing their weight, with their sweetness concentrated, It is said that "it was a brave man who ate the first oyster," and history well records the first time a wine was ever made from such rotted grapes. It was in 1775, at the famed Schloss Johannisberg on the Rhine, when Prince Abbot of Fulda's messenger arrived late with permission to harvest. Rather than risk Abbot's displeasure, the gray, fuzzy, almost raisined clusters were picked and the wine made. Everyone was startled by the ripe apricot-and-pineapple taste of that juice, and the wine that resulted was seemingly a miracle. It was almost 20 years after the repeal of Prohibition in California, when Beaulieu Vineyard's Andre Tchelistcheff recognized that a condemned lot of Riesling grapes was not infected with bunch rot but rather the "noble rot," that we learned of the possibility--under certain misty, humid conditions--for the blessed blight to happen here. Nature does not regularly bestow upon California vineyards the proper humidity at the proper harvest time for botrytis to appear.

For memory making at this holiday time, I've rounded up half a dozen examples of absolutely world-class, superlative vintings of TBAs (totally botrytis-affected wines). It would take a whole book to describe the liquid poetry of these golden wonders. High in sugar, low in alcohol, they have lasting qualities, but now is the time to serve them, in your best crystal liqueur glasses--but by all means clear glasses so that the radiance of the golden elixir can reflect the candlelight.

Freemark Abbey 1986 Edelwein Gold: Sweet Johannisberg Riesling. Residual sugar 20.2%, alcohol 9%; 750 milliliters $30, 375 milliliters $18.50. First made in 1968 and subsequently only in those vintage years when nature has conferred those humid conditions on the ripening grapes. A 1975 edition was a Grand Prize winner at the Los Angeles County Fair, with prize winners also in 1976 and 1978. The 1982 edition attained a miraculous balance of sugars and acidity, as does this 1986 wine.

Chateau St. Jean 1983 Alexander Valley Gewurztraminer, Belle Terre Vineyard, Select Late Harvest. Residual sugar 13%, alcohol 10.2%; 375 milliliters $14. Joyous, exotic wine from the Alsatian grape. To be cherished; a classic by wine master Richard Arrowood.

Ferrari-Carano 1986 Alexander Valley "El Dorado Gold" Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest. Residual sugar 19%, alcohol 11.9%; 375 milliliters $14. Available in limited quantities.

Smith & Hook 1982 Gabriele y Caroline Monterey Late Harvest Riesling. Residual sugar 12.2%, alcohol 10.2%; 375 milliliters $9.50. From 100% botrytised Riesling grapes in the year of El Nino. Golden amber, with a bouquet incredibly suggesting ripe apricots and pineapple.

Chateau de Baun 1986 Semi-Sweet Symphony Sonoma County "Theme." Residual sugar 5.48%, alcohol 9%; 375 milliliters $7. A lightly sweet and lovely wine produced from one of California's most exciting new varietal grapes, Symphony, a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris. Far Niente 1985 Dolce (2/3 Semillon; 1/3 Sauvignon Blanc) Residual sugar 11%, alcohol 13.5%; 375 milliliters, $30. The same grape varieties as Yquem from this splendid Napa Valley winery, summoning remembrance of the Italian phrase for the "sweet life, free from care": "Dolce far niente!" Sold only at the winery, each bottle autographed in gold by wine maker Dirk Hampson and owner Gil Nickel.

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