One of the most venerable culinary customs in Judaism is eating sweet foods on Rosh HaShanah, particularly ones flavored with honey: honey on challah, honey on apples and even honey cake. Adding a few sips (or glasses) of a honey-like dessert wine can make a wonderful supplement to the holiday meal.
Although there are many dessert wines made from dozens of different grape varieties, most good dessert wines tend to share two characteristics: a golden color and honey-like flavors.
Many Jewish oenophiles tend to avoid sweet wines, based on an often-unthinking assumption that all sweet wines are going to be cloying like Cream Concord, Heavy Malaga and similar kosher sacramental wines. But a well-made dessert wine — one with a good balance between sugars and acids — is something that any wine lover can relish.
While there are fewer high-end kosher dessert wines on the market than there were a few years ago (and they are getting more expensive all the time), a growing number of quality, moderately priced ones have emerged. So in preparation for the New Year, I’ve tasted a half-dozen current releases, and found four to possibly grace your holiday table.
The best wine — and at $60 a bottle, by far the most expensive — was Chateau Piada, 2006 Sauternes. This dark-gold-colored and intensely sweet wine has flavors and aromas of heather, litchees, apricots, lemon zest, cumquats, toasted white bread, milk chocolate, cloves, cardamom and white pepper. With a nice level of acid, this wine is drinking well now, and is likely to continue to develop for the next seven or eight years. In time, look for the citrus elements to recede and the honey and spice flavors to predominate.
Score A/A- ($59.95. Available at Skyview Wine & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  548-3230.)
For those seeking a more moderately priced dessert wine, Binyamina’s 2012 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer would be a good choice. Made from Gewürztraminer grapes grown in the Galilee, this tawny-straw-colored, full-bodied (with 15.1 percent residual sugar) richly sweet wine has a dense bouquet of peaches, Meyer lemons, oranges and heather. Look for flavors of peaches, apricots, oranges and lychees, with lemon and spice on finish. Well balanced, with a nice bracing acidity, this wine should drink well until at least 2017, and perhaps longer.
Score B+ ($21.95 for a 375 ml bottle. Available at Skyview Wine & Spirits.)
Slightly lighter in body is Herzog’s 2012 Late Harvest, Chenin Blanc. This pleasant wine, made from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in the Clarksburg region of Northern California, has a medium-to-full body and a straw color. Look for a somewhat restrained nose of Mandarin oranges and pears, and flavors of honeydew, Mandarin oranges and pears, with a hint of candied ginger. Drink within the next two years.
Score B/B+ ($16.99. Available at Beacon Wine & Spirits 2120 Broadway, Manhattan,  877-0028.)
The lightest (but by no means the least) wine in the tasting was Herzog’s 2012 Late Harvest California Orange Muscat. With its pale orange color, this medium-to-full-bodied wine has a bouquet of kiwi, honeysuckle and apricots. Look for a crisp flavor of honeydew and apricot on the fore-palate, pineapple and orange on the mid-palate, and lemon on the finish. This is a well-crafted wine, however with only 9.5 percent residual sugar it is perhaps slightly too light to truly be classified as a dessert wine. Drink until 2016 or 2017.
Score B/B+. ($15.99. Available at Shoppers Vineyard, 875 Bloomfield Ave., Clifton, N.J.,  916-0707.)
Dessert wines can be very food friendly. They go particularly well with chopped liver, patés and waterfowl. (For lunch on Rosh HaShanah I often serve roast duck with a variety of sweet wines.) However, at the end of a meal, dessert wines should be served as dessert, not with dessert, because they don’t actually compliment most sweets. So if serving you’ll be dessert wine at your meal, it is best to serve the wine either before or after the honey cake. Always serve dessert wines well chilled. I wish you all a very happy and healthy New Year.
Please Note that wines were scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned.