RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: KEEPING EVERYONE SWEET

You don't have to go to Beaumes-de-Venise for end-of-meal drinking. Try heading for Austria or Madeira
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The Independent Culture
When my wife and I drafted our pre-nuptial agreement, I intended (and forgot) to include the following clause: "Towards the end of all exceptionally jolly dinner parties, I am likely to suggest that we have more to drink. When I make that suggestion, lock up the alcohol and melt the key."

If it's true that the superego is the part of the personality that's soluble in alcohol, my superego, when dissolved, invariably convinces me that I need another drink. While some people sing karaoke or wax seductive with the waiter serving the next table, I pull A Cork Too Far. With disastrous results the next day. Which is a shame, because certain drinks designed for the shank-end of a meal feature in my list of all-time heroes. A glass of Bas-Armagnac along the lines of Chateau de Laubade. My favourite Bourbon, Evan Williams Single Barrel (unavailable here, fortunately). A luxurious single malt such as Highland Park 18-Year-Old. Any of these, swirled and sniffed between sips, warm the heart and round off the meal. Now, there are people who claim that spirituous after-dinner drinks can be combined with the final stages of eating. I disagree. I prefer a bottle of good dessert wine. The ports we surveyed last week form a major component of that category. This week it's the rest, and they're by no means a second- string bunch.

My love of dessert wines puts me at a disadvantage, since no drink of that description comes cheap. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is reliable and sometimes memorable, but once you leave that safe terroir, dessert wine costing less than a pounds 10 note is a dodgy business. Few other wines using that versatile grape manage to be more than dully sweet: Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de Frontignan are boring when cheap, and good but over-priced when expensive. Moscatel de Valencia, from southern Spain, falls into the same category. If there is an Australian Late-Picked Muscat that has anything more than alcopopulist, kick-in-the-tooth-enamel sweetness, I've yet to pull the cork on it.

There do exist some decent Dessert-Island Wines for under a tenner. Safeway sells for pounds 3.99 a 37.5cl bottle of Pudding Wine, aka Auslese QmP Pfalz, which is apricot- fruity and very well balanced. On the whole, sweet wines really begin to loosen their limbs when the band is playing "We're in the Money". Hungarian Tokay, Sauternes, Barsac, Vendange Tardive Alsace wines, German Beerenauslen and Trockenbeer-enauslen, some of the sweet Vouvray from the grand house of Huet, - these make up the Post-Prandial Premiership. And cost an arm and a leg.

You can see how highly valued the good sweet wines are by looking at the fate of the Pinot d'Alsace 1995, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht which won the dessert wine trophy in this year's International Wine Challenge. The wine sold for pounds 11.20 and by the beginning of this month, the importer reported that it had all flown out the door. At the time of writing there were still 15 bottles chez Roberson (0171 371 2121), but you can bet your last pounds 11.20 they've been sold by now.

So where does that leave us? In the position of having to spend a lot more money, because making dessert wines of distinction is a dangerous business. The grapes must be left on the vine till very late in the picking season, so they dehydrate and gain in concentration. And the best become stricken by Botrytis cinerea, the mould called noble rot in English, pourriture noble in French, Edelfaule in German. Botrytis feeds on the grapes' sugar and acid as well as the remaining water content, and while it obviously reduces the yield from the affected vines, it also produces wines of remarkable and unmistakable intensity. Small wonder the growers wait for it to happen. But the longer they wait, the greater their chances of losing the whole crop to inclement weather.

I have got a few personal choices which will not induce insolvency though. If you blanch at the prices, remember that a little goes a long way: these are very rich wines, and at the end of a splendid meal, a full 75cl bottle will easily give eight people all the sweetness they need.

Top of the list is Chateau Climens 1991, a premier cru Barsac. Sauternes and Barsac make the best sweet wines anywhere, but that vintage was not a happy one in: frost hit hard in spring, and rain at harvest-time left many chateaux in deep trouble. Climens was an exception, however, and their 1991 is available from Waitrose (Inner Cellar only) for a very reasonable pounds 28.50. The wine is honeyed, smoothly oaky, with deep, concentrated butteriness and acidity. Wonderful stuff, and better value than the chateau's second wine, Cypres de Climens, which can be found in 50cl bottles at Bibendum, Layton's, and other independents for around pounds 14 to pounds 15.

A pair of alternative Sauternes, if you can find them, come from the six Oddbins Fine Wine shops. One is the Chateau Rieussec 1988 selling for pounds 34.99, the other a half bottle of Chateau Filhot 1990 at pounds 14.99. Both those vintages were more uniformly successful, especially the 1990, and the wines, which I haven't tasted, should be worth seeking out.

But for those after dark-horse wines of real distinction, one buzz-word should be Austria, where the range of styles would astonish drinkers. For sweet wines the top quality comes from the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake 30 miles out of Vienna, with a damp climate providing perfect conditions for the development of botrytis.

Austrian sweet wines, like their German counterparts, are classified principally by the sugar content (ie potential alcohol) of the grapes. Beerenausle has 18 per cent, Trockenbeerenausle 22 per cent. A third category, Ausbruch, comes solely from the village of Rust; this is essentially a Trockenbeerenausle to which un-botrytised grapes have been added for fermentation, and this means the result is not, in theory, as sweet.

I recently had the opportunity to try a load of Austrians and had a great time of it. The best were the most expensive, which means very expensive indeed: pounds 25 and up for a 37.5cl bottle. But even those at the un-scary end of the price scale had much to commend them. Tesco sells Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenausle 1995 for just pounds 5.49/ 37.5cl, which is a fair price for its exotic nose, dried nuts and figs on the palate, and very long finish. Pay pounds 8.99/37.5cl at Budgen and you'll get Munzenreider Samling 88 Trockenbeerenausle from the same vintage. This one has a steely edge to the nose and presents the palate with an unctuous coating of fruits in syrup with a touch of cinnamon, or some other posh spice. Best of all: Lay & Wheeler's Feiler-Artinger Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Cuvee 1995, pounds 13.50. This left me with a heavenly host of lingering flavours which even survived a mouthful of Sensodyne before bedtime.

One other possibility for discerning and dedicated drinkers is Madeira. I will admit that my experience in the field is limited to widely available specimens of unexceptional quality - relatively young wines of five or 10 years of age. The better stuff is older, 10 as a minimum and going well into the 19th century if you've got the money. The problem with these wines, apart from expense, is availability. With demand low, few major retailers pay much attention. If you want to get serious you need a specialist, and a good first stop would be the Madeira selection of the mail-order Cognac & Whisky Club (01707 646987). Their current list features bottles from all the major producers, with prices for 10-year-old Cossart Gordon (Verdelho and Bual) starting at around pounds 16. A 15-year-old Malmsey (the sweetest style) will set you back pounds 20, while wallet-sapping rarities like 1907 D'Oliveira Malvasia at pounds 135 are for rich fans only. The one that catches my eye is a 1968 D'Oliveira Boal which has received some high praise and sells for pounds 35.

If I thought it would do a damned bit of good, I would urge you once again to drink sherry. This too is better known as a kick-off drink, but the sweeter styles can be every bit as good - on their own, or with dessert. So-called PX wines are intensely raisiny and with an almost syrupy consistency which lingers endlessly in the mouth. The one I usually drink is Valdespino Pedro Ximenez Superior, around pounds 7.50, but Gonzalez Byass Noe Pedro Ximenez (around pounds 20) is usually reckoned the best of all. Both are available from Oddbins Fine Wines among other sources.

My second-best suggestion is this: when you're eating something sweet, drink a glass of ice-cold water with it. No sparks will fly, but neither will the tell-tale signs of throbbing head and short temper the morning after.

My best suggestion? Save money by skipping the cream, nuts, chocolate and other ingredients of your dessert. Save on the calories, too. Put both of those finite resources towards one of the bottles mentioned. For my money, a good dessert wine is the best sweetie anyone could ask for. !

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