Do those people who turn their noses up at all sweet wines know what they're missing? Many still associate them with the sort of vapid sugar-water that goes under washed-up names such as liebfraumilch or lambrusco. But the fine sweet wines that end a meal beautifully are among the great wonders of the wine world. Recently, when I put on a tasting of some truly delicious sweet wines, a woman in the audience who'd never liked them before was instantly converted. What's more, there's so much to appreciate about the making of the wines.
Botrytis sounds like an infection, and it is indeed is a fungal infection that makes grapes go mouldy. But, as in blue cheese, the mould (botrytis cinerea) is beneficial - hence the phrase "noble rot". Botrytis concentrates the grape's luscious juices and refreshing acidity, so it is the sine qua non of a good year for semillon in Sauternes, for wines such as the 2003 Doisy Daëne (half bottle, £11.99, Waitrose), which is unctuous and magical in its crystallised peach and pear flavours. Australia cunningly replicates the Sauternes experience at a fraction of the price in wines such as the 2002 Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Botrytis Semillon (£5.99-£6.99, half bottle, Booths, Oddbins and Jeroboams) a luscious sweet white with honey richness and a snap of pineappley acidity.
Few sweet-wine grapes are more classic than Germany's riesling. A rare delicacy, and gloriously luscious, the aromatic 2003 Dr Loosen Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel (Mosel, £22, half bottle, Waitrose Inner Cellar) is a wonderful sweet white, but not too sweet, with exotic, passion-fruit delicacy and crisp zest. If Germany is the supreme exponent of the style, the New World is homing in on riesling's hedonism at an affordable price. From the Cape, the 2003 Van Loveren Signature Series Noble Late Harvest Riesling (£7.99, half bottle, Tesco) is a golden confection rich in dried apricot and honeyed botrytis with a tang of tingling acidity. And 2003 Almond Grove Noble Late Harvest Riesling (Robertson Winery, half bottle, £5.99, or two for £9.98, Majestic) has toffee-apple aromas and peachy richness with a lime bite.
No pantheon of sweet wines would be complete without tokaji, a blend of Hungary's Furmint and Harszlevelu grapes. There's nothing quite like it to cut through the sweetness of a pudding, because the concentrated essence of its raisined, botrytised grapes emphasises their knife-sharp acidity. In its dumpy, traditional, 250ml bottle, the 1999 Royal Tokaji Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos (£8.99, 250ml, Waitrose) is a wine of toffee-apple flavours and marmaladey richness with that searing bite from the Furmint's powerful acidity. The 1995 Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos Disznoko (£21.99, Oddbins) is so viscously rich, intensely flavoured and marmaladey that this quintessence of tokaji can stand up to the strong flavours of a blue goat's cheese or, at a pinch, Christmas pudding.
Port is sweet wine fortified with brandy. The 1987 Croft Quinta da Roeda (£11.99, Majestic) is a spicy, mature number, which, stood up for 24 hours and decanted, replicates the qualities of a vintage port at a sensible price. Tawny port lovers should seek out the glorious aged, nutty qualities of the Marks & Spencer 20 Year Old Tawny Port (£21.99), and for the real, no-holds-barred, hauntingly aromatic, liquid walnut and raisin pudding vintage experience, the 1983 Grahams Vintage Port (£52.99, Wine Rack, selected Threshers) could have been tailor made to match the Stilton.Reuse content