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How Sweet It Is
Comments () | Published September 7, 2011

Wavra began the tasting with a talk about sweet wines—the ways they’re made, the types of grapes used, and the standards for pairing sweet wines and food. He said wines and foods should both complement and contrast with each other—spiciness with sweetness, sweetness with sweetness, fruitiness with more fruitiness. There are no hard-and-fast rules. When a pairing works well, the wine enhances the food and vice versa.

Wavra noted that many people’s introduction to wine is via the sweet variety—and usually not a very sophisticated version. He pointed out how hard it is to produce a good sweet wine—and how elegant and lyrical such wines can be. He didn’t mention that in two pairings, tasters would be comparing Sauternes that cost $325 and $99 for a half bottle with Virginia wines costing less than $30. (Except where noted, prices listed are for half bottles, or 375 milliliters.)

***

The bottles were wrapped in foil to hide their identities. Tasters could sample the pairings in whatever order and as many times as they liked. Most tasters took the food-and-wine pairings to the dining tables so they could taste, compare, and make judgments in a leisurely fashion. By the third pairing, most of us were surrounded by partially filled glasses, allowing us to compare not only the matched wines but also those previously tasted to better award points and select an overall winner.

Linden Vineyards winemaker Jim Law, two of whose wines were in the contest, sat at a table in the corner seriously sipping and dutifully scribbling his impressions. He was joined by sommelier Richard Dunham of L’Auberge Chez François and his wife, Darden Paule, as well as Kathleen Burke, who had distinguished herself at the 2009 tasting by correctly identifying every Virginia wine. This quickly became the experts’ table.

The premier food-and-wine match of the event was a seemingly simple blackberry beignet served with one of the world’s greatest wines, the 2005 d’Yquem, and a 2008 Rockbridge V d’Or, the signature ice wine of Virginia’s Rockbridge Vineyard.

Rockbridge, in the Shenandoah Valley near Lexington and Staunton, is owned by Shepherd and Jane Millott-Rouse. Shepherd has a master’s degree in enology from the University of California at Davis and has worked in such California wineries as Schramsberg, Chateau St. Jean, and Carneros Creek. The $24 V d’Or is a blend of Vidal Blanc, Riesling, Vignoles, and Traminette. The grapes are pressed while frozen. When the grapes start defrosting, the rich juice drips into a pan underneath the grape press. After 12 months of fermentation, the golden Virginia wine is bottled. To most everyone’s astonishment, the tasters favored it over the d’Yquem, rating it the second-best wine of all those tasted. The Château d’Yquem ranked third-best overall.

***

Chef King prepared a creamy rabbit-liver parfait with brown butter and truffle to accompany a 1971 Rieussec ($125 a full bottle, or 750 milliliters) and a 2007 Veritas Kenmar ($35). Rieussec, arguably the second-most famous Sauternes, is made on property overlooking the Garonne River that has been producing wines since the 1700s. The 1971 vintage is considered one of the best in decades. The Veritas Kenmar is made by Emily Hodson Pelton, who has a master’s in enology from Virginia Tech. Her parents, Andrew and Patricia Hodson, own the Afton, Virginia, vineyard. The Rieussec won this paring and ranked sixth overall. The Veritas Kenmar ranked seventh.

The most daring pairing involved bouchot mussels stewed in wine with curry and lime—the taste was tart and the texture chewy. It was matched with a 1975 Château Suduiraut ($65 for a full bottle) and a 2000 Linden Late Harvest Vidal ($23). The Suduiraut is made of 90 percent Semillon grape, which is particularly suited to “noble rot,” the process whereby the Botrytis cinerea fungus attacks ripened grapes, absorbing moisture and concentrating the sugar. The Linden late-harvest grapes come from 21-year-old vines, some of the vineyard’s oldest. The grapes are frozen, then pressed, a process known as cryoextraction, and only the first thawed juice is used. In another surprise, the Linden wine was the favorite in this pairing and was ranked fifth overall. The Suduiraut ranked last overall.

Perhaps the most traditional course was Colston Bassett Stilton with pear jelly, but Chef King admitted that his most difficult choices, involving numerous tastings by his staff, were what type of Stilton to choose and in what form to serve the pear. The wines selected were the 100-point 2001 Rieussec ($99) and a 2006 Linden Late Harvest Petit Manseng ($28). The Petit Manseng grape originally comes from the Jurançon region of southwestern France and is high in acidity, making it ideal for a dessert wine. The Virginia wine was rated second to the French and fourth overall. The glamorous 2001 Rieussec was ranked best overall.

***

At the end of the afternoon, Neal Wavra announced the results. “Biases were dashed, and a 100-point score was upheld,” he said. “It was a successful tasting.”

There was general surprise at the Château d’Yquem showing—most of us supposed that for all its vaunted reputation, it should have shouted its superiority. That it did not underscores the fact that the wines ranged from very good to extraordinary—the differences among them were subtle. And this time we weren’t shocked by how well the Virginia wines did. Interestingly, exactly half of the wines identified as the better of the two in each pairing came from Virginia and half from France.

The lesson of this tasting is that very good wines of all kinds are being produced around the world—including in Virginia—and not all of them have three-figure price tags.

This article appears in the September 2010 issue.

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