Silicon Valley wineries offer up some fantastic finishes to your feast

By Carol Maskus

Merry and bright: we found six local dessert wines to keep your holidays festive. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Chocolate torte, Buche de Noel, rugelach, sweet potato pie: a big part of holiday feasting is the dessert. And while we often go all out for dessert over the holidays, we typically neglect to properly pair our sweets with appropriate drinks. This can leave us nursing that same glass of wine we had with our meal, wondering why it suddenly tastes so bitter with our after-dinner treats.

Sweet food is meant to be paired with sweet wine. Dessert wines are (naturally) sweeter than dry ones, and are meant to go with creamy, decadent, sugary things.

But they can also go with salty things, as well. In wine pairing, you either match flavors and textures — for example, rich Chardonnay can stand up to rich, decadent lobster; or you contrast them — a cool, crisp Riesling tempers a spicy coconut curry. With dessert wine you can also do both, match sweet to sweet (a velvety port with a chocolate mousse) or contrast salty and sweet (a rich Sauternes served with roquefort blue cheese).

Many people look to Portugal or France for dessert wines, but California is making some excellent versions closer to home. Here on the Peninsula our local wineries are quietly producing some fantastic after-dinner wines to suit your sweet tooth. Here are some of favorite local finds, along with their recommendations for pairings with holiday treats.

Russian Ridge: NV Forte Port-Style Wine

“NV” stands for “non-vintage,” a term often seen with Port and Port-style wines. This means that several vintages are blended together to make a style that’s supposed to be relatively uniform year after year.

Scott Townsend pours one his port wines (technically, it classifies as a Forte) in the Russian Ridge tasting room. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Forte is no different, explains Scott Townsend, of Russian Ridge Winery.

It is a Solara style port, which means in this case it was started in 2006. Every year, after it is ready to bottle, we bottle 25% of the lot and replace it with the next vintage sourced from vineyards all over California.”

In essence, instead of trying to showcase the terroir of one individual place using one individual varietal, Russian Ridge attempts both complexity and year-to-year reliability by blending from multiple vineyards and vintages.

An unusual feature of this wine is the barrels it uses — freshly emptied Kentucky bourbon barrels, which gives it a unique nose and taste.

“Smoky, with hints of caramel on the palate,” says Townsend.

The wine has only 7% residual sugar, and pairs well with dark chocolate or red raspberries over ice cream, according to the winemaker. He also recommends blending it with sparkling wine for a brunch treat.

Testarossa Winery: Guadalupe Muscat Canelli and Br. Korte Cuvee Black Muscat

Testarossa produces both a red and white dessert wine. Both are made in the tradition of the Jesuits, who were famous for their black Muscat, and used to win medals at the California State Fair.

Testarossa’s two unique dessert offerings: The Muscat Cannelli (left) and the Black Muscat. (Courtesy of Testarossa)

Catholic brothers started Testarossa in 1888, though it was then called Novitiate Winery, and survived Prohibition by producing church altar wine. It is now the fourth-oldest continually operating winery in California.

The Muscat Canelli, or white, has “beautiful and concentrated aromas of fig chutney, molasses, golden raisins and marmalade,” according to Bill Brosseau, director of winemaking.

The Black Muscat has “marmalade jam, molasses, brown sugar and loganberry.”

Julie Scoppazi, marketing manager, says both pair well with creme brulee, crepes and chocolate, though she likes to have both just on their own. At a whopping 18.9% residual sugar for the Canelli, and 17% for the Black Muscat, it’s understandable, as they would be dessert unto themselves.

Picchetti’s Angelica White Port. (Courtesy of Picchetti Winery)

Picchetti Winery: Reserve Angelica White Port

Never heard of a white Port? It’s unusual. But give it a chance — white dessert wines can make a refreshing break from the more robust reds. And with this list of characteristics — “a luscious mouthfeel with hints of walnuts drizzled in orange blossom and jasmine flower honey, sweet satsuma fruit, and a rich finish of creamy butterscotch and caramel,” according to Michael Bruzus, associate winemaker for Picchetti — who wouldn’t want to try it?

Like a red Port, the wine is fortified. The winemakers ferment Chardonnay grapes until they reach a proprietary blend of sweetness, this year 10.8% residual sugar (or how much natural sugar is left in the grape juice), and then stop fermentation and add brandy. Some other unusual things about this wine are that the Chardonnay comes from a high-elevation, steep-sloped vineyard, which generally makes for crisper whites; and winemakers use indigenous fermentation. This is a risky but rewarding technique where yeasts that naturally live with the grapes are used for fermentation, resulting in a more natural wine.

“This is a real treat over the holidays, as it is best shared with friends and family,” says Tom Small, also associate winemaker. “We typically enjoy it by an open fire while savoring a dessert after a hearty meal.” He recommends pairing it with cheesecake, tiramisu, panna cotta, creme brulee, “or just a generous dollop of your favorite boutique vanilla ice cream.”

When the well runs dry: Left Bend found a sweet solution to a difficult situation. (Courtesy of Left Bend Winery)

Left Bend: Last Straw Zinfandel Blend

In 2015, Left Bend saw a serious drought with their grapes.

“The well at the Zinfandel vineyard on Redwood Retreat Road (Santa Clara Valley AVA) had gone dry, so the vines were not irrigated, as would normally be the case,” says Gary Robinson, winemaker. “The fruit was harvested in early September, and it came in withered up and raisined. The off-the-chart sugar level in the raisined fruit was not suitable for making a traditional Zin, so I was going to refuse the fruit.”

Instead, he made a dessert wine by letting the dried fruit ferment until it stopped at both a high alcohol and high sugar level, and blending it with other varietals to bring down the alcohol and sugar. The final residual sugar is 11%.

This wine is not fortified, but is made in a style similar to France’s Sauternes, which uses shriveled grapes, or an Amarone from Italy, which dries their red grapes on straw mats to concentrate the flavors. In fact, the name “Last Straw” references these mats, and also refers to how these shriveled grapes, thought to be ruined, were given a “last” chance.

“A ton of ripe dark black raisined fruit explodes on the palate. It’s rich and sweet with a hint of tartness from the acidity,” says Robinson about the taste. He recommends it with aged Gouda or Manchego cheese, raspberry and cream gelato, or just used like a thick, syrupy Balsamic over ice cream.

Savannah Cahnelle’s aged Tawny Port.

Savannah Chanelle: 2004 Syrah Tawny Port

Yep, you saw that year right: 2004. Savannah Chanelle reserved some of their Port from that year’s ruby Port, and aged it to make a tawny. Typically browner in color and nuttier in flavor, tawnies are often seen from Portugal, where the stuff’s been produced for centuries and wineries have the resources to age their wine, but not from California. Aged wines in this state are a rare treat.

The tasting room at Savannah Chanelle.

The wine was made just like Picchetti’s white Port, by arresting fermentation when there’s still significant residual sugar, and using brandy to beef up the alcohol. This one has 8.8% residual sugar.

Tobacco, forest floor, and earthy and nutty flavors are what dominate, according to Anthony Craig, winemaker.

“December is the perfect time to drink Port,” when family, friends and baked goods are all around, says Kyle T. Ritchie, manager. He recommends it with a warm brownie with ice cream.

All wines explored are available at their respective tasting rooms. Also check websites — most locations offer online ordering.

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