During the holidays, you often can't get away from dessert. Sugar-dusted cookies compete with snowy meringues for your attention. Your aunt insists that you have a piece of her famous fudge. Your grandmother's fruitcake has been steeping in rum for months, while her sister counters with homemade panforte. And just when you think it's safe to say no, somebody or other unveils a traditional steamed pudding, baked in an antique copper mold. It's enough to send even the most dessert-averse into sugar shock.
As an alternative, how about a dessert wine that you can sip on its own as dessert — or pair with something that's not quite so sugary? Nut cookies, bittersweet chocolate shards or a hazelnut or walnut torte are all ideal. A half bottle should do nicely for six or sometimes even eight.
You'll need small tulip-shaped glasses or, in a pinch, a white wine glass. Pours should be small, not even a third of the glass. This is not about guzzling but rather sipping at a relaxed pace. You can certainly go with a Sauternes, a port or a beerenauslese from Austria or Germany. These can all be fabulous after dinner, and if you have a bottle in hand, by all means open it. If you don't, we propose some less expected choices from California, Hungary, Italy and Spain.
2013 The Ojai Vineyard Santa Barbara County Kick On Ranch Riesling (Central Coast)
Essentially an ice wine made by pressing frozen grapes, this is the first dessert wine the Ojai Vineyard's Helen and Adam Tolmach have made from Riesling. First take in its lovely perfume of tropical fruit, white peaches and flowers. A sip delivers tastes of honey, ripe melon, litchi and pineapple. That's followed by a lush, lingering finish. To enjoy on its own or with an apple tart or pie.
Look for it at Wally's Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. About $30 for a 375-milliliter bottle. Also from the Ojai Vineyard online, store.ojaivineyard.com, at $33 for a half bottle.
2006 Oremus Tokaji Aszu "5 Puttonyos" (Tokaji, Hungary)
It's fun to turn dedicated Sauternes fans on to this exquisite Tokaji from Hungary. Its gentle bouquet of honey and orange peel doesn't quite prepare you for how intense it is in the mouth, layering notes of dried figs, tangerine and tropical fruits. Never cloying, Tokaji has been produced at this historic estate since the 18th century. When the renowned Spanish winery Bodegas Vega Sicilia bought the property in 1993, it renamed the estate Bodegas Oremus — but the wines are still made by Tokaji master Andras Backsos.
Look for it at Greenblatt's Deli & Fine Wines in West Hollywood, Vendome Liquors in Toluca Lake and Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. About $90 for a 500-milliliter bottle. The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel and Maude, both in Beverly Hills, are pouring it by the glass.
2012 Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Malaga Seleccion Especial #1 (Malaga, Spain)
Spanish wine importer Jorge Ordoñez and his sister, Victoria, are making a super late-harvest Muscat in the Malaga region near the Costa del Sol. Pale gold, with intense aromas of citrus and sweet spices, the 2012 Malaga Selection Especial #1 is a beautiful expression of Muscat Alexandria from 40-year-old vineyards. And its under $20 price tag makes it an excellent bargain.
Look for it at Los Angeles Wine Company in Los Angeles, Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, and Wine Exchange in Santa Ana. $16 to $20 for a 375-milliliter bottle.
2005 Fèlsina Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Berardenga (Tuscany, Italy)
From one of Chianti Classico's top estates comes this gorgeous vin santo, traditionally Tuscany's wine of hospitality. Made from grapes dried on straw mats before pressing, Felsina's vin santo is made from a blend of Trebbiano with Malvasia and Sangiovese. A deep amber in color, it takes only a drop to get the flavors of butterscotch, orange peel and dried or candied fruit. A vibrant acidity ensures that the wine is never cloying and the finish is amazingly long. A wine to linger over on its own or with biscotti.
Look for it at Wine Exchange in Santa Ana, the Wine House in Los Angeles and Vino Paraiso in Murrieta. $35 to $41 for a 375-milliliter bottle.
2012 Grgich Hills Cellars Violetta Late Harvest Napa Valley (Napa Valley)
Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, all grown on the estate, go into Grgich Hill's lovely Violetta late-harvest dessert wine. Aged in French oak, it has a delicately floral scent. It's all honey and ripe fruit on the palate, with a touch of citrus and smoke. That trace of bitterness in the long, elegant finish sends you back to the glass for another sip.