Sweet wines typically conjure one of two thoughts--with jug-wine headaches at one end of the spectrum and out-of-my-price-range Sauternes at the other. But somewhere in the middle of this equation, California dessert wines are emerging as an affordable and enjoyable alternative to ending a holiday meal. The following wines and their approximate prices for 375 milliliter bottles are a few of the better examples being produced in California.
The first and most costly category is late-harvest wines, which are made from overripe grapes that have been affected by botrytis mold, making the juice concentrated and sweet. When pairing with food, it's best to keep your dessert less sweet than the wine or the combination can be cloying. Far Niente's 1998 Dolce Late Harvest ($75), made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, pairs nicely with tiramisu as well as nectarine- or mango-based desserts. Robert Mondavi Winery's 1999 Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis ($50), with guava and apricot flavors, offers a creamy counterpoint to an apple tart. If you can get your hands on a rare bottle of Campanile founding partner Manfred Krankl's 1999 Mr. K Viognier Trockenbeerenauslese ($85), which has notes of honeyed apricot, you might want to serve it alone.
Less costly are white Muscat wines, which typically tend to have more honeysuckle and pear characteristics. Bonny Doon Vineyard's 2000 Muscat Vin de Glaciere ($17) translates to "wine of the icebox." Best served icy cold, it has a subtle pineapple quality that is a good contrast to creme brulee. Robert Mondavi's 2002 Moscato d'Oro ($18) is a lighter, peachier version that works well with a rhubarb crisp. Made from organically grown grapes in Nothern California's Lake County, Bonterra Vineyards 2002 Muscat ($15) has undertones of citrus and pineapple that blend beautifully with an almond torte.
If you prefer to end the evening on a red note, try Andrew Quady's 2001 "Elysium" California Black Muscat ($10) from Madera with a bittersweet chocolate torte or a wedge of Stilton cheese. Or in the case of the ruby-hued Chaucer's Olallieberry wine ($10) from Bargetto Winery, pour it directly over vanilla ice cream or a slice of cheesecake.