February 1, 2007

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Got milk?

A glass of sweetness
The pleasures of dessert wines
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

Growing up everybody wanted to be friends with me in the winter.

This was because my father owned a ski house in Vermont. Everyone who skied wanted to come for a weekend of free lodging.

One of the regular guests was a first-generation Scotsman named John. He grew up and went on to work in sports marketing. He traveled the world signing up-and-coming soccer stars to lucrative sneaker endorsement deals. He signed up whole teams that played in rural, third world countries. The team would purchase the soccer shoes and John would obtain the endorsement. Having the local soccer club wearing your company’s shoes sold a lot of product in places like Guayaquil, Ecuador. And as John grew more successful, he also grew more generous.

Every summer he rented a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. It really wasn’t a cottage; it was more of a shack. No air conditioning, no dishwasher, a broom (no vacuum cleaner) and a big deck. We spent most of the time out on the deck, which was set among the dunes and wild grasses. It faced north. In the distance you could see Pasque and Cuttyhunk Islands, two even more isolated wilderness retreats.

On a hill behind the shack was the Gay Head Lighthouse. It would cast its beam on us every night. Up the road was a tiny village called Menemsha. Here you could get the New York Times, an ice cream cone or fresh caught fish and lobster. It was very idyllic and remote. The kind of spot where you sit and relax. Not a place where someone with a go, go, go, mentality would be happy. John’s invited me there every summer since 1996. Most of the time I go. Two years ago I took Beth, an old friend, and her daughter with me. We had briefly spoken with John and he assured us that even though he was renting the cottage for a whole month, he would be in and out, having business in Boston. But we knew something was up when we got off the ferry from New Bedford and nobody was there to meet us.

We took a $33 cab ride from Vineyard Haven. Through the Tisbury’s out into the rolling island country. When we got to the shack everything was dark. We entered and found a note from John: “Had to go to Europe. Back on Monday.”

Back on Monday? We were only staying until Sunday! We contemplated leaving, but since the place was free, why not stay?

We started to clean the place up and looked around for something to eat. (The next day we’d rent a car.) We found four cans of tuna fish (but no mayonnaise), a can of green beans and a bottle of 1996 Chateau Doisy Vedrines. It was a 375-milliliter bottle. And the wine was a Barsac, a sweet dessert wine from the south of Bordeaux. We opened the little bottle and drank its sweetness under the stars. The ocean waves murmured on the beach. The lighthouse rotated and splashed us with patches of light. We liked the wine but it was a little sweet with the canned green beans, toasted hot dog rolls and Skittles we had for dinner. But I do remember the tastes — caramel, lemon chiffon, Fuji apples and honey. The wine had less alcohol than a Sauternes, and a little more fruit. We’d have enjoyed it more if we’d served it with a flan or custard. Maybe a piece of apple pie and some strong cheese.

The vacation turned out to be really fun, although we did miss having John with us. We cooked fish, right off the boat, we went into town and we partied with the next-door neighbors, whose rundown little fishing shack came alive one night when a whole crowd of people showed up and lit a bonfire and two big charcoal grills. John had told us that the next-door shack was property of the Taylor family — as in James Taylor, his brothers and ex-wife Carly Simon. We never met the famous ones and we never asked if the rest were related. We just preferred to assume they were and eat the free roasted corn, oysters and hotdogs they shared.

Looking back at the times I’ve tasted great dessert wine, I’m surprised by the different conditions I drank it under. In New York at Le Bernardin, on a Vineyard beach, at a wine-tasting featuring Italian wines and around my dinner table, after a meal of slow-roasted pork ribs with homemade sauerkraut. All made memorable by the not-everyday-taste of a fine dessert wine.

And while the wine we drank amid the dunes was a Sauternes from Barsac, there are other dessert wines equally fascinating.

Inniskillin Winery is on the Niagara Peninsula and produces top-quality ice wines. Like Barsacs, they are sweet dessert wines. Unlike Barsacs — which get their sweetness from noble rot, a mold that super-ripens the grapes and concentrates the residual sugars — ice wine grapes are left on the vine until after the first frost. This shrivels the berries and also concentrates the fruit and sugar. Inniskillin wines are available in New Hampshire and are quite pricey, in the $50-to-$70 range for a 375 ml bottle. A better bargain without sacrificing much flavor is Chateau Roumier-Lacoste Barsac, $18.99, 375ml, which has a mellow sweet honey taste. Try these wines with a mug of coffee and a hearty dessert.

Here are the wines I tried this week.

2005 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Vineyard Chardonnay, $16.99. Fruit, structure and wonderful bouquet with a bit of a weird finish that tastes a little chemically. But good enough to recruit a new wine rookie who loved it!

1997 Leroy White Burgundy, $27.99. A little watery, but very natural tasting.

1999 Rapet Beaune Clos du Roi, $29.99. A screechy little wine with tight-fisted fruit and an unforgiving attitude.

2005 Kavaklidere “Yakut” Oküzgözü d’Elazig, $11.99. A Turkish wine that needs more time and maybe a better vintage? Very cabernet.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.



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