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MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES (article first published : 2002-04-18)

Alf Sudheim, Secretary of the Durban Country Club, had an unusual idea when our private wine tasting group met at his home recently. He presented us with eight sweet dessert wines, the “stickies”, wines that are often dismissed by the ordinary drinker as too cloying but are highly praised by the connoisseurs.

It was a bold move because these wines are intended to be taken in small quantities at the end of a good meal, or maybe with pate de foie gras at the beginning. But, like the true troopers we are, we gritted our teeth and plunged ahead, to the great enjoyment of all.

The wines offered were all naturally sweet wines; they had not been fortified by the addition of spirit to arrest the fermentation process and preserve the sugar content (as is the case with sherries and ports). These eight were made from grapes which were harvested late in the summer and were therefore sweeter or, in some cases, from grapes infected with botrytis, the fungus or mould which attacks the skins of the grapes, causing the juice to evaporate and concentrating the sweetness of the berries.

Making these wines is a fine art which has been thoroughly mastered in many South African cellars. Sweet wines from Constantia made the country’s name in the wine circles of Europe more than two centuries ago, and today there are well over a hundred natural sweet dessert wines on the market (as distinct from fortified wines). They vary widely in price, from about R20 a bottle to about R75 for a half-bottle.

The wines presented by Alf Sudheim ranged in vintage from 1978, which was the famous Nederburg Edelkeur, the star turn at the Nederburg wine auction for many years, to 1998. We found that over the years this Edelkeur had retained its best-known features, dried apricot and honey flavours. One of the 1998 vintages, Nederburg Eminence, made from muscadel grapes, scored top marks in the blind tasting, and the other 1998, a Morgenhof noble late harvest with pineapple flavours, also scored well.

Other wines tasted included the brilliant Klein Constantia Vin de Constance, l992 vintage, made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, no botrytis, with mint, lemon and honey favours; De Trafford Vin de Paille of 1996, with hints of pear, marzipan and granadilla; and Weltevrede Wit Muscadel of 1991, brilliant gold with a slightly minty character.

These wines are not as potent as they taste. Alcohol content is usually about 14 to 15 percent, some are less than that, compared with about 13 percent for an ordinary dry red or white. You shouldn’t get a hangover but, delicious as they are, a little of them goes a long way. As Shakespeare observed in a different context, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and die. – Michael Green




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