Dessert wines are plentiful in every wine region in the world. In heaven, surely there will be an abundant supply of French Sauternes, Hungarian Tokaji , Canadian Icewine and German Trockenbeerenauslese. Up until recently there was a privation of quality kosher dessert wines. More Israeli wineries are now offering sweetly decadent wines even though great effort had been expended to distance their dry wines from "liquid religion", the sweet syrupy "sacramental" kiddush wines that had for too long become synonymous with Israeli wine. As Israeli wineries dramatically improved their dry or semi-dry table wines, their winemakers are becoming less cautious about risking the comparison since these expertly crafted dessert wines show the complexity, expressiveness and balance that was never expected of, or destined for, kiddush wines.
Although there are international standards on whether a wine should be labeled as dry, off-dry, semi-sweet or sweet by how much residual sugar is left in the wine after fermentation, in reality there is seemingly no consensus on what makes a wine a dessert wine except that it should be sweeter than a dry wine and served as or with dessert. There are a few traditional tried and true methods used to make quality dessert wines that are being replicated in Israel with plenty of pleasurable results.
Historically, the Golan Heights Winery paved the way for quality dessert wines in Israel as much as it did for dry wines. Notably, its NoNoble Semillon is a dessert wine that uses the fungus botrytis (often called "Noble Rot") to concentrate the sugar contents, flavors and aromas (and reduce the water content) of white Semillon grapes. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the two white Bordeaux grapes exclusively used to make decadent and often pricey Sauternes. Additionally, they have made fortified dessert wines featuring the white Muscat Alexdroni grape. Fortified wines typically add brandy or spirits to a wine to boost both its alcohol level and it sweetness. Their "Heightswine", a play on Eiswein or Icewine, freezes grapes to concentrate flavors and sugar with similar results to Noble Rot. Under its Yarden label, the winery regularly releases this Gerwurztraminer grape derived treat that opened the door for many other Israeli Gewurztraminer dessert wines.
Most noticeably and readily available is Carmel's Sha'al Gewurztraminer . This is a late harvest wine where the grapes are left longer on the vines to gain a higher concentration of sugar, flavor and aromas than might be found in grapes destined for a drier incarnation. Sha'al is Carmel's most acclaimed vineyard in the Golan Heights. With regard to quality white dessert wines, typically cooler vineyards help produce more complex flavors, aromas and acidity to make for a well balanced wine. Tzora and Binyamina are also making well respected Gerwurztraminers.
Thankfully, there are now too many Israeli dessert wines to mention . Some other wines of interest include the Moscato wines from Carmel, Dalton, and the Golan Heights wineries. Moscatos are slightly sweet, slightly bubbly wines heralding the popularity of Moscato D' Asti from Italy. They are typically far less expensive (and less complicated) than many other dessert wines
The Tishbi Winery has been making several red and white dessert wines including one of their newer releases: a fortified wine featuring red Barbera Baand Zinfandel grapes. Made in the "Port-style" method (only fortified wines from Portugal can be labeled Port just as only sparkling wines from Champagne, France can be called Champagne) The Tzuba Winery (in the Judean Hills) as well as the Golan Height's Odem Mountain Winery also make similar fortified red dessert wines as well as Late Harvest Chardonnays.
Although fruit wines often unjustly get little respect from many wine writers, as dessert wines they often come into their own. As evidence, I offer a new cherry wine from the Golan Heights' Odem Mountain Winery . Fermented from two different kinds of cherries (one sweet and one more sour), it displays the balance and complexity one would expect from a grape wine but it screams that it is made from cherries in it's bouquet and in every delightful mouthful .. And what fruit is more Israeli than the pomegranate? The Rimon Winery produces a pomegranate dessert wine and sparkling wine that provides an easy and delightful way of making any meal more festive and more Israeli.
One basic rule of food pairing with dessert wines is that a wine should be sweeter than any dessert it's served with, I favor white dessert wines with many cheeses as well as with white or tropical fruit such as citrus based desserts like key lime pie or peach, apple, apricot or banana offerings. Similarly, I find red dessert wines pairing best with chocolate, cherry, plum, berry or strawberry desserts. Of course, the only thing that makes these pairings even more enticing is what joy it can bring sharing these wines with that certain special someone capping off a romantic dinner or snuggling together watching a movie on the sofa.
David Rhodes can be reached at: Israeliwineguy@gmail.com