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Sweet Wines for Valentines

better than chocolates, more clever than roses

Have you been around the Valentines block and back again bearing the same, tired box of chocolates and dozen red roses?

Guys, have you bought so many little trinkets and baubles and dinners out that they just don't mean anything anymore?

Ladies, have you given him every conceivable romantic version of golf stuff, cute boxers, silk ties, and yourself all dolled up?

It's past time to do something different; something special that you will both enjoy now and in the future, and that can be loaded with so much more meaning. Something unique that tells them you care, and that you took the time to think of something different this year.

This Valentines, give a bottle of great sweet wine.

Not sweet wine like wine that is sweetish and cloying and kind of awful. Not, say, a bottle of Blue Nun (not that there's anything wrong with that). But a bottle of world-class dessert wine, the finest of which are as rare as a yellow diamond and can age for decades.

Don't know a thing about dessert wines? Don't panic. You probably know more than you think, and even if you don't, you're about to find out and it's going to be painless.

Most wine producing countries produce some version of dessert wine, and each can be as different as the culture they come from. Perhaps you have heard of the great Sauternes wines from France? Port from Portugal? Tokaji from Hungary? Ice Wine from Austria? These are but a few examples.

In general, dessert wines are created by using grapes that have been left to hang on the vines until very late in the season (which is why you will also see them called "late harvest wines"). Depending upon the climate, these grapes are then either harvested and laid out to air dry on straw or reed mats, or they have been affected by the noble fungus "botrytis cinerea" (aka "noble rot"), or they freeze and are harvested while still frozen to create Ice Wine.

Straw or reed wines are usually made from grapes that are healthy when harvested, and are then laid out to air dry on the mats for at least three months. In Italy, these wines are called Vin Santo. In Austria, they are called Strohwein or Schilfwein. Because the grapes are healthy at harvest (that is, not affected by the noble rot) they are a bit like an Ice Wine in their taste.

Wines made from grapes that have been affected by noble rot are quite rare because it takes a very special set of climatic conditions to produce them. It must be a warm summer, a mild autumn, and there must be moisture in the form of mists or fog that rolls over the vineyards from a nearby lake or river. For the noble wines from France (Sauternes) and Germany, these conditions do not occur every year. In Austria, there is an area called the Burgenland region around the Neusiedler Lake that creates nobly rotted grapes every year. These wines require several pickings at harvest time, and in Germany and Austria these different harvests produce wines that are different levels of sweetness, the lesser being called Beerenauslese, and the sweeter being called Trockenbeerenauslese. In Austria and Hungary, there is then an even sweeter wine called Ausbruch, which is so labor intensive and rare that a half bottle can cost thousands of dollars. However, there are many Ausbruch wines from the town of Rust (called Ruster Ausbruch) that are ranked as among the best in the world and can be bought for between $30 and upwards for a half-bottle. Two producers of these Ruster Ausbruch wines to look for are Wenzel and Feiler-Artinger. Great producers of other noble sweet wines include Chateau d'Yquem and Chateau Climens (both from France) and Kracher, Velich, and Heiss (from Austria).

True Ice Wines are made when the grapes freeze on the vine, and are harvested while still frozen. Some producers in countries with less strict wine laws create "Ice Wines" by tossing the grapes into a commercial freezer, but these are not seriously considered to be world class. The best true Ice Wines come from Germany, Austria (where they are called Eiswein) and Canada. A particularly great Eiswein for Valentines day would be one made from the Traminer grape, as it is known for having aromas of roses and rosewood. A fine example would be the Heiss Eiswein Traminer 2001, which is truly like having a bouquet of roses in your wineglass.

The final thing that makes giving a great bottle of dessert wine for Valentines a meaningful gift is the way that it speaks to your future together. The best of these wines can be put away to cellar for 10, 20, even 50 years. How wonderful to give your beloved a half-case of six of these wines, one to enjoy right away and the rest to open, say, one every ten years? What other gift can keep on creating beautiful moments like this can? What other gift says I love you and I will be there for you as we travel through this life together? Not a bunch of flowers, which may last a week if you're lucky. Not a piece of clothing or anything of that ilk. And not a piece of jewelry, which may last, but isn't something you keep enjoying together as time goes by. This is the year to do something different. This is the year of sweet wines for Valentines.

About the Author

Emily Schindler is a fine wine importer based in Los Angeles. You can find more of her wine writing, as well as world-class dessert wines, at http://www.winemonger.com

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