For a truly unique dessert wine experience, wines made in the caramelized style particularly stand out. These wines combine flavor and aroma profiles of butterscotch, hazelnut, spices, and rich caramel and butter notes and are sometimes referred to as being “sticky” for their overall consistency. Characteristics typically used to describe these wines include walnut, almond, hazelnut, caramel, toffee, vanilla, and honey. Famous wines made in this style include Rutherglen Muscat (a fortified wine from Victoria in Australia), Pedro Ximenez, Vin Santo, and Madeira.
Of these wine types, perhaps the most famous is Madeira. The name of the wine derives from the name of a remote Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. Today, Madeira is considered to be one of the world’s truly great fortified wines, as well as one of Portugal’s great contributions to the world of wine. The history of Madeira dates all the way back to the mid-17th century when the archipelago acted as a supply base for ships headed to Brazil and India. Sailors demanded a wine that could handle the long ocean journey, and thus was born the need to create a fortified wine like Madeira.
The different varieties of Madeira include Verdelho, Sercial, Bual, and Malvasia (often called Malmsey), depending on the grape variety being used. In addition, Madeira comes with an indication of aging (5 years for Reserve, 10 years for Special Reserve and 15 years for Extra Reserve).
Pedro Ximenez is a white wine grape used to make the finest sweet sherries of Jerez in Spain. This fortified wine can be made in one of two ways – as a Sherry blend or as a Pedro Ximenez single varietal (often just referred to as “P.X.”). The traditional home of Pedro Ximenez is Andalucia, especially the sub-region of Montilla-Moriles. The grape is also found in southern Spain (e.g. Valencia, Extremadura) and even in the Canary Islands. Winemakers make P.X. wines by sun-drying grapes to the point where the juices begin to concentrate and the skins start to raisin. The final product is a lusciously sweet wine with flavors and aromas of toffee, figs, chocolate, and dried fruit.
Vin Santo (literally, “Holy Wine”) is an amber-hued straw wine from Tuscany in central Italy. These are golden, intensely flavored wines made from a combination of Malvasia and Trebbiano grape varieties. It is certainly a dessert wine, but the overall sweetness can vary, depending on the technique of the winemaker. After being harvested, the grapes are left to dry out on straw mats in order to concentrate their sugars. The very sweetest wines (i.e. the ones with the most concentrated sugars) are known as “dolce” and are comparable in quality and taste to wines from Sauternes. These high-end dolce wines can have aromas of orange blossoms and apricots, as well as a palate of caramel, nut and raisin and a finish of honey.
And, just to prove that caramelized and sticky wines are not just found in Europe, consider the success of Rutherglen Muscat in Australia. Northeast Victoria has emerged as a real center of fortified wine production.