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Bet I can read your mind. Ready? Name a type of dessert wine.

Your answer is "icewine."

I find the trick works almost every time, at least in Canada. If you answered "sauternes" or "trockenbeerenauslese," I'm duly impressed and grateful I wagered no money.

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It's a testament to the quality, consistency and duty-free ubiquity of Canada's flagship wine export that the stuff has become almost synonymous with dessert wine here in the land of snow.

It's also a shame. The irony about icewine is that it's so high in sugar it can overwhelm some desserts. Personally, I like icewine best on its own, as dessert.

Besides, the field of sweet wines - "stickies," as Australians like to call them - is vast, varied and overly neglected.

It ranges from the ethereal, aforementioned sauternes, which paradoxically make a good match for savoury foods often encountered at the holidays, such as liver paté and smelly cheeses, to port and sherry, the fortified elixirs stereotypically associated with cigars, drawing rooms and monarchists.

But those are just the biggies. If you've not before had a Monbazillac, muscat de Baumes de Venises, boal Madeira, ice cider from Quebec (technically not a wine because it's made from apples) or moscato d'Asti, you've been missing drinks that, glass for glass, have accounted for more wine-drinker epiphanies than those on the dry side. And remember that dessert is short. The best way to prolong it is with a meditation beverage.

It's uncanny how dessert wines, though made from grapes, can evoke so many flavours from the seasonal baker's pantry - dried fruits, preserved fruits such as plum jam or tinned apricots, honey, caramelized sugar, cream, roasted nuts and spices such as ginger and cinnamon.

Like a properly made pie, all good dessert wines balance sweetness with a commensurate tug of acidity.

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Unlike most solid desserts, the nice thing about wine is that in virtually all cases the sugar comes solely from grapes. With dry wines, yeast feeds freely off the sugar in the grape juice to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Sweet wines are born when the yeast calls it quits part way through, either because there's so much sugar in the vat that the organisms choke on their own alcohol or they are intentionally stopped off by the winemaker, who either chills the tank to put the yeast to sleep or spikes it with excess alcohol.

The tank-chilling process is responsible for what I consider one of the most underappreciated wines on the planet. It's a slightly fizzy white from Italy's Piedmont region called moscato d'Asti (not to be confused with the inferior Asti Spumante). Low in alcohol (usually 5 to 6 per cent), it's bottled with a regular cork as opposed to a champagne stopper and is seductively perfumed. The flavours can hint strongly at white table grape, crisp apple, orange blossom and melon.

When most moscato d'Asti virgins taste a chilled glass for the first time, they usually go ga-ga. There's nothing better for desserts featuring fresh fruit. Moscato also rocks with cookies and other desserts that aren't too sweet, such as biscotti. It goes nicely with some trifles.

I think of moscato d'Asti as a class of its own, both for its low alcohol and its crowd-pleasing appeal. Incidentally, icewine is another niche style, pressed from frozen grapes that have been harvested from leafless vines typically in January in the middle of the frigid night, after the first major and sustained cold spell. The ice is drawn away from the still-unfrozen juice and pulp to concentrate the sugars.

Also in a little class of its own is ice cider, a Quebec spin on icewine using apples. After moscato d'Asti, it may be the other great epiphany "wine" for those who have never tried it. Think of the perfect apple pie, then think of that pie cranked to 11. There are several producers. Domaine Pinnacle sells for $29.95 in Ontario at a handful of the larger liquor stores. It's $24.95 in Quebec. Fabulous stuff.

But most other dessert wines all fall roughly into one of four broad categories.

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LATE HARVEST These are picked after the normal harvest but before icewines. As vines shut down for winter, the berries dehydrate, concentrating the sugar. Some of the best Canadian dessert beverages fall into this category, yet they cost less than their sweeter, icy uptown cousins. A consistently good example is Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling from Niagara (about $25). Other good producers include Konzelmann, Chateau des Charmes, Lailey and Henry of Pelham.

Some of the most scintillating, complex late-harvest wines, though, are made in Alsace, where they go by the literal French translation of vendange tardive . Be prepared to pay handsomely, however: Many cost $50 to $100 a bottle. Good, widely available producers include Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel and Trimbach.

My top choice for Lucy Waverman's accompanying ginger-lemon pie would be a late-harvest gewurztraminer either from Canada or Alsace, including Trimbach Vendange Tardive Gewurztraminer 2000 ($35 for a half-bottle in Ontario only through Vintagesshoponline.com).

NOBLE ROT

Among the most complex wines on Earth, these include sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary and late-harvest chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. In certain humid regions, a beneficial fungus called Botrytis cinerea - "noble rot" - attacks the grapes, concentrating sugars and acids and imparting flavours of its own. Butterscotch is a flavour common to botrytized wines. Chateau d'Yquem is the undisputed king of producers, but it's ridiculously expensive for mortals (several hundred dollars a bottle even in a bad year). Château Doisy-Vedrines, at $32 for a half-bottle, is a decent buy. The coveted - and expensive - German wines that come in half bottles and go by the 20-letter, seven-syllable name trockenbeerenauslese are noble-rot wines.

Noble-rot wines are among the most coveted stickies because they combine depth of flavour with an elegant balance. To use a car (or dance) metaphor, they have a perfect centre of gravity. They can also be extremely cellar-worthy, improving for many decades.

If $32 for a half-bottle is too expensive, here's my third-best tip (after moscato d'Asti and ice cider): There's plenty of noble-rot value in blue-collar versions from neighbouring French districts labelled Monbazillac, Loupiac and, ironically named for a value wine, Cadillac. Australia also produces some excellent botrytis-affected wines, most notably Noble One from De Bortoli.

Sauternes and other noble-rot wines go well with a variety of desserts. But they also mesh with the earthiness of sauteed foie gras or liver pâté as well as many cheeses, such as the ones recommended by Sue Riedl on the opposite page.

VIN DE PAILLE ("STRAW" WINES)

You may have heard of vin santo, the Italian elixir that translates as "holy wine." Tuscan winery tour guides will regale you with stories about how it got its name, all of which are bogus. (Nobody really knows, although I'll wager it was an in joke among producers who resented priests hounding them for free demijohns of the stuff.)

Grapes for vin santo are picked at the normal time, then laid on straw or bamboo mats to dry for weeks or months.

It's a sugar-boosting trick as old as wine itself, used today in most regions of the world either to make sweet wine or simply to goose up alcohol in a dry wine, as in Amarone. I tend to be less fond of this style because the wines often taste too, well, raisiny.

Nevertheless, one of the best and culturally organic food-and-wine matches anywhere is nut-studded biscotti with vin santo, especially when the former are dunked into the latter, as is customary in Tuscany.

FORTIFIED

This is your port and sherry category, beverages spiked with brandy or a neutral spirit. Port gets fortified half way through fermentation to leave residual sugar. Sherry, by contrast, usually is fermented dry, then - in the case of sweet sherry - spiked with sugar.

Things you should know: Port goes with Stilton and other salty cheeses, particularly cheddars. Sweet sherry goes hand in glove with roasted nuts, rich soups and, in my book, pretty much everything. Drink more sherry. (That's my fourth big suggestion.) The fortified category also includes some delicious French regional styles with less alcohol than port. Among the best is muscat de Baumes de Venise from the Rhone Valley.

My fifth highly personal suggestion, for what it's worth, is to get better acquainted with Madeira, the fortified wine named after the little Portuguese archipelago off the coast of North Africa. Madeira comes in several styles, from virtually dry to syrupy sweet.

Lucy Waverman's Christmas cake is your cue to buy a bottle of sweet Madeira. Look for the two styles labelled boal and malmsey.

The latter is particularly dark and sweet and can ooze notes of caramel and coffee, which will add depth to the cake. Good brands such as Henriques & Henriques and Cossart Gordon, typically around 20 per cent alcohol, run about $40 a full bottle, but long-aged ones are more expensive.

A nice thing about investing in Madeira is that you need not finish it all in one go. You can even save an opened bottle for next year.

Like the cake, Madeira will last on the shelf virtually forever.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Beppi Crosariol writes about wine and spirits in the Globe Life and Style sections.He has been The Globe's wine and spirits columnist for more than 10 years. In the late 1990s, he also wrote a food trends column called The Biting Edge.Beppi used to cover business law for ROB and previously edited the paper's weekly technology section. More

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