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Food & Drink Value vino – Great wines for under $15



Fermentus interruptus

Italy’s Brachetto d’Acqui may be the quintessential Valentine wine. Brilliantly ruby red in color, exuberantly fizzy in character, and loaded with the aroma and flavors of roses, raspberries, and undertones of chocolate, it is, as one wag suggested, “sex in a bottle.” It works as a dessert wine, with the chocolates and berries suggested by the wine itself, or as an aperitif to get the juices flowing. Buy the most recent vintage you can find (Banfi’s Rosa Regeale is one possibility), for like love, it may be fleeting.

If your approach to romance (and dessert) is less on-your-sleeve, there remain many sweet wines for the sotto voce seduction. Michele Chiarlo’s Nivole Moscato d’Asti, also from Italy, translates as “clouds,” but the wine’s light effervescence and low alcohol content (5.5 percent maximum), complemented by welcome acidity, won’t cloud either party’s mind unduly, allowing provocative hints of orange blossom and honeysuckle to prevail.

The muscat grape, in numerous variations, is responsible for several dessert wines. In the Rosenblum’s Gallagher Ranch Black Muscat, the fermentation process is stopped before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, which gives the wine its sweetness. Think ripe berries, especially blueberry, and a hint of chocolate. Quady, a California winery dedicated exclusively to dessert wines, uses black Muscat for its Elysium label, and the result is whiffs of rose petal and litchi flavors that make it suitable for ... ”dark chocolate, ice cream desserts, and candlelight.”

Among Quady’s other products, Essensia, made from the orange Muscat grape, stands out for its air of orange and apricot. Lightly fortified to about 15 percent alcohol, it is also blessed with a high acidity that balances the wine’s sweetness, saving it, in the producer’s words, from becoming “ an old-fashioned sticky sweet Muscat.”

Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat is made in the solera system, in which newer wines are continually added to older ones, resulting in a profoundly deep and full-bodied wine with aromas of caramel and spice and flavors that tend toward raisin and toffee. R.L. Buller & Son Premium Fine Tokay, also a blend of several vintages, offers lush caramel and toffee.

Nature provides other ways of concentrating sweetness in grapes, and freezing, as expressed in eiswein (or icewine), is just one. It’s risky to leave grapes hanging on the vine in hopes of a freeze, so producers such as Northern California’s irrepressible Bonny Doon have resorted to post-harvest freezing. Muscat Vin de Glaciere, whose packaging suggests lingerie, is the result. Expect intimations of apricot and come-hither hints of pineapple. Dulcet tones of honeyed apricot and peach should be your lot if you pop the cork on a bottle of Vin Glacé, an Oregon pinot gris from King Estate that also is frozen by the producer rather than Mother Nature.

The most highly prized dessert wines are made from grapes that have been left to rot (in only the best sense) on the vine, and the sine qua non of such is Sauternes. Most of us can’t often afford wines infected by this “noble rot,” not even in the 375ml size. But producers such as Maison Nicolas provide alternatives to a $400 bottle of Château d’Yquem. Their 2003 Sauternes retails for around $15 in the split format, and though it’s perhaps not the star-crossed soul mate to seared foie gras that is the châtelaine of the château, it is nevertheless a lovely little wine with honeyed flavors bolstered by a touch of racy acidity — just what you want in both a dessert wine and an àpres-dessert companion.

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