Book Review: Sweet Wines by James Peterson

Review by Jennie Schacht.

In the world of wine, the sweet ones get short shrift. But veteran cookbook author James Peterson doesn’t mind. His book, Sweet Wines: A Guide to the World’s Best with Recipes, covers the territory that wine writers often leave behind.

Peterson’s discussion of the wines, accompanied by his own evocative photographs, covers this complex subject clearly and succinctly. After a context-setting introduction, he takes us on a geographic voyage through the thirteen most important countries producing sweet wines, describing major regions and the wines for which they are best known. Sidebars point to interesting details, top wine makers, and some of Peterson’s personal favorites. A final chapter looks at varietals, 27 of them from Albana to Viognier. Rounding out the picture are an introduction covering what makes those sweeties sweet, definitions of sweet wine terms, and suggestions for serving and entertaining.

Whether the regions or the grapes come first is, perhaps, a chicken and egg question. But because the region often determines the style, Peterson’s organization makes as much sense as any other. The tour covers the top European producers (France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Austria), as well as Greece, Moldavia, the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Along the way, he hits all the predominant wine styles: still, sparkling, oxidized, botrytised, fortified, and those made from dried or frozen grapes.

The reference material is peppered with recipes that remind us that sweet wines need not be reserved for dessert. Recipes for Braised Sea Scallops with Saffron, Fresh Morels with Cream, Chicken Liver Mousse, Oxtails Braised with Banyuls, Red or Pink Lentil Soup, and Bacon and Gruyere Tart showcase the diversity of these wines, often thought of only as a finishing flourish to a meal. For the most part, the recipes keep in mind the regions from which the wines originate.

That’s not to say that Peterson has forgotten the desserts that pair with these wines. You will find a variety of those you might expect to match nicely with the sweet, sticky stuff: Crispy Apple Tart, Mango with Mint and Vanilla, Gingerbread Cake, and Madeleines.

Sweet wines have enjoyed growing attention on restaurant menus. Not too long ago, it was unusual to see wine selections paired with desserts. Now, you might find a Sauternes or trockenbeerenauslese paired with an appetizer of foie gras, as well as suggested pairings to accompany the dessert menu. I’m always surprised when, despite this, the server offers only a choice of coffee or tea to conclude the meal. Still, the times (and the wines) they are a’ changin’. Dedicated wine pairing menus almost always offer a sweet pairing with dessert, and almost all wine lists offer a few choices of sweeties, even if hidden in the back of a three-inch binder.

There are not a lot of references out there for sweet wines, and Peterson ably covers the landscape in an accessible way. I turned to it time and again while researching sweet wines for my own wine and dessert cookbook. This is a good place to get a grounding in the sweet end of the wine spectrum, as well as the inspiration to go out and try them.

buy-from-tan.gifJames Peterson, Sweet Wines: A Guide to the World’s Best with Recipes, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002, $14.88 (hardback). [Editor’s note: this title is currently out of print, but is readily found both used and new from Amazon.Com]

Jennie Schacht is principal of Schacht & Associates. She is co-author with Mary Cech of The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook and with Joey Altman of Without Reservations: How to Make Bold, Creative, Flavorful Food at Home.