If there is a devotion Indians show as much as they do to God, cricket, politics, and movies, it’s to all things sweets. In fact, if you’re a true Indian, somewhere in the country or even away, you may even skip a visit to a temple, mosque, or a church but will definitely have a dose of sugar in one way or the other. Be it with our morning cups of coffee or chai, in yogurts with our meals, snack bags we munch on, those sugary drinks, shakes, smoothies, and juices, or just pure sweet and dessert courses that follow after our meals. Call it a deep-rooted connection with our ancestors’ diets that has drilled sugar-intake into our genes or the irresistible appeal of a platter of homemade sweets prepared at every corner of the street, India, in a nutshell, remains a sweet-toothed country. That’s the story generally after our meals. A somewhat equal reverence is enjoyed by the tipples we engage in before a meal. Be it light draws of beer or wine, or a generous pour of whisky on-the-rocks; we love them as they come. However, it’s interesting to see that this is one area that we like sans-sweetness. Quite a contrast you’d say.
Under the umbrella of fine wines, there exists an intriguingly exciting genre – dessert wines. They are the simplest (and at the same time, complex) that a wine can get. These wines can be sweet enough to replace your desserts, and hence the name. Rarely does one witness someone reject tasting these wines, especially in India. Be it at a morning tasting, an evening get-together, or at the dinner table, these are the most-demanded and first ones to vanish off the offering. Concern remain, they may appreciate tasting them but not order them from the winelists or pick them off the local wine shop shelves.
History of sweet wines began from the Greek and Roman era where grape juice was drawn and stirred with some yeast to initiate fermentation, breakdown of sugar to alcohol. With the lack of much understanding about the process, the wines would remain only partly fermented as the weak yeast would give up soon with dropping winter temperature and increasing alcohol levels and wouldn’t complete the cycle, resulting in a considerable portion of sugar unmoved, thus creating a sticky yet alluring sweet wine. Some of these were so highly regarded that they were reserved only for consumption by the kings’ court and the royal priests. Eventually, they spread out to reach the layman, only at certain marked occasions, and their worth was well understood. Even though the technology has boomed today to fully ferment the sugar but the divine temptation of these sweet drops hasn’t let the winestyle become a matter of the past. They are demanded the world around and reserve a considerable portion of the winelists. Yet, India has turned its back on them and hasn’t welcomed it with arms wide open, the reasons are many.
- Post-Dinner Drinks: Indians were introduced to the British idea of post-meal indulgence but never received it fully. Be it Cognacs and brandies, digestive liqueurs, or even something as simple as coffee. Lunch is considered a workingman’s meal, thus light, and dinners are almost a gala event. We compensate what we miss out at lunchtime with heavy main courses of rich gravies, curries, and rice, leaving no corner for these post-dinner sips. Dessert wines are not a mid-meal proposition and are best reserved for later. Indian cuisine generally doesn’t allow us that liberty, drawing only a little scope for their presence on our tables.
- Variety of Indian Sweets: We love our desserts, don’t we? Be it as light as Sandesh, kheer, basundi, or phirni, to something as heavy as Jalebi, Gulab Jamun, or Khubani ka Meetha, we can polish off the platter in a jiffy. The concern remains with their complexity of styles, sweetness levels, textures, and serving temperatures (especially when served warm). Although there exist wines from light to almost raisin-sweet luscious sticky consistency to match all levels of India sweets, however, the idea of pairing them with something to sip alongside is non-prevalent. Desserts in European/ Western cuisines are generally served cold and classified into three flavour-dominant categories: Heavy: chocolate/coffee-based, moderate: caramel based, light – sugar based, and so are the wines, making it simpler to marry. Indians desserts are a complex chapter, even for Indians, and lack of understanding of the two worlds has inhibited the acceptance of dessert wines here.
- Health Concerns: A hereditary health concern engrained in our genetics is that of diabetes. If you’re not one yet, the fearful thought of getting there defines what you eat, right! Dessert wines and Ports can have as much as 100 grams of sugar per litre, or even more. This is the same natural sugar found in fruits, called Fructose, but in higher concentration. Though it is healthy but our genetic build-up suggests us to stay away.
- Connoisseurship: Wines are a fine beverage, everyone likes to be seen talking about them. A little knowledge about wines and their vocabulary places you in the category of ‘connoisseur’ in your social circle. While some believe sweet wine is just alcohol with sugar, truth is they are never easy to describe. As a general belief, talking about these wines is considered less intelligent. Most vinos embark their wine-drinking experiences with Goan Port-style wines, the sugary red wine that tastes almost angelic when youthful. In social circles, however, they wouldn’t rate it high. Even if that’s your daily poison, they are looked down upon and thus refrained from, holding its sugary sweetness to blame. It’s true, some bad wines are masked with sugar to bring them to a drinkable status, but not all sweet wines stand true to that notion. Historically speaking, three wines were called ‘gods’ wine’, and two amongst them were dessert wines. Amongst these two, one is so prestigious for the country that it’s a part of their national anthem!
- Temperature and Portions: Hotels andrestaurants fail to educate the consumers about the fact that high sweetness makes the drinkability of dessert wines restricted. Result, 90-100ml is their average service portion, against 150ml of dry wines. Furthermore, as the sugar level escalates the service temperature should be dropped to curb the sticky, clawing mouthfeel the wines can bring. If not presented at the right temperature, they can potentially taste identical to warm chaashni (rich thick sugar syrup). Throw your dessert wine bottles at the back of the freezers for an hour and pour them out in tiny a portion, that’s liquid bliss!!
Here’s a list of wines that can convert you into a sweet wine lover:
- Light Sweet Wines: A great way to become akin to the delicate aromatic lifted sweetness of these wines is to start light. An Italian or Australian Moscato, Off-dry German or Australian Riesling, or an Argentinean Torrontes can do just the job. These wines are not too sweet and can even be had by themselves on a lazy summer afternoon when chilled. The wines are fruity and perfumed and have great compatibility with Apple Halwa, Kheer, cheesecakes, and other dairy-based desserts.
My Picks: Martini Asti (Italy), Torres Vina Esmeralda (Spain), MTB Torrontes (Argentina), Selbach and Dr. Loosen Riesling (Germany), Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc (India)
- Medium Sweet Wines: They are a notch above the light sweet wine category with sugar left unfermented intentionally to let them sit comfortably besides your desserts. Ports, Late Harvest Chenin Blancs, and Moscato d’Asti are commendable examples and can almost make you push your desserts away to make way for these beauties. They combine well with Malpua, Khubani ka Meetha, Jalebi, Carrot and Dal Halwas.
My Picks: Reveilo Late Harvest Chenin Blanc and Vallonne Vin de Passerillage (Indian), Fratelli Vineyards Sidus Port (Indian), Cockburn Twany Port (Portugal), Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti (Italian)
- Sticky Sweet Wines: When you feel like having nothing else but a dessert for dinner and wish to pull out the sweetest dish out, reserve these wines for then. Caution! They are sweet enough to make you fall asleep. Sauternes, Moscatel d’Oro, Botrytis Semillon, and Icewines (if you find one) are what populate this category. Anything made with caramel and sticky sugar syrup-wrapped, pair these wines with them confidently. A great way to relish them is to pour these wines over a scoop of vanilla or cookie-and-cream ice-cream and relish them as a sophisticated yet elegant combo.
My Pick: De Bortolli Botrytised Semillon (Australia), Torres Floralis Moscatel d’Oro (Spain), Inniskillin Vidal Icewine (Canada)
Dessert wines are the most fun one can have from the family of fine wines. They are inviting, playful, elegant, approachable, and their sweetness makes all the complexities melt down in front of their captivating allure. Approach them without any apprehensions and relish their fine flavours and you’ll see how easy it is to become their disciple. And yes, forget not to chill them. Cheers!!