Given our national love of desserts, it's surprising that sweet or dessert wines are not more popular. It may be that consumers think that if they're spending $30-plus on a bottle of wine it should be bigger than the 375ml bottle that dessert wines often are.

And why are they this size? Sweet wines are complicated beasts to get right, needing certain weather patterns to allow the grapes an extended level of ripeness, and the ongoing winemaking process is and fraught with a high degree of difficulty.

The world's most famous dessert wine (called Sauternes by the French) is Chateau d'Yquem, a divine expressive honeydew sensation with a price to match - expect to pay at least $300-$400 per half-bottle, depending on the vintage. Consequently, something local at around one-tenth of the price seems reasonable.

In New Zealand the most common grapes used for dessert wines are riesling, which, with its racy, searing acidity, can cut through rich desserts like chocolate, which, because of its own texture and strong flavour, often slaughters most wines.

Cheeses, too, can be enhanced by a dessert wine, especially rich blue cheeses such as stilton or gorgonzola.


Other grapes often used are viognier, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc and, on occasion when a freeze method (where the grape juice is frozen out, leaving a sweet, concentrated juice to be fermented) is used, pinot noir has been very successful.

Quite often a glass of dessert wine is perfect on its own at the end of a meal and no dessert is required at all. Given the level of richness in these wines they should be approached differently from the usual table wines and often one small glass is more than ample.

Don't be fooled either by the classification of this wine as "dessert". As the French know only too well, a small glass of Sauternes is often a fine way to begin a meal instead of the obligatory glass of Champagne, especially when served with foie gras or a similar rich pate.

As veteran Hawkes Bay winemaker Rod McDonald says, "Making dessert wines is possibly the most risky winemaking there is. With extreme risk comes extreme reward."

2009 Spade Oak Noble Viognier, $32 (375ml bottle)
Made by a Gisborne producer whose wines are being well received in China, this wine is from a single vineyard of viognier grapes and has aromas of fresh bread with a lovely gentle sweetness and flavours of orange marmalade, apricot and honey cream.

2011 Osawa Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, $28 (375ml bottle)
100 per cent gewurztraminer grapes and a major award-winner, this has a full-bodied style with a big, perfumed bouquet. Lots of citrus, lychee, ginger, orange and turkish delight flavours, with a lovely unctuous texture and a spicy finish.