by Andrew Harwood
The effort, the stress, the constant worry and second-guessing – it’s hard to believe anyone chooses to take such a gamble with their fruit. Producers who make late-harvest, or dessert wines, risk crop destruction by birds of prey, hailstorms, frost, rot (not the noble sort), and migrating geese just to name a few.
There are, nevertheless, those who do roll the dice, ignore the voice of reason, and leave their berries on the vine well past the expiration date for making a dry table wine. Yet even when the vintner does beat the odds, crafting a late-harvest cocktail of sugar and acid, dried fruits, and a whole host of flavors beyond description, their work has just begun.
Despite a 33% increase in U.S. dessert wine sales from 1999-2003 (according to the Wine Institute), many consumers continue to regard sweet wines as elementary, as beverages for the uninitiated. Since graduating to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Viognier, all traces of sugar were left behind in their shameful past of White Zinfandel and wine coolers.
Hungary’s Tokaj region, nestled in the Zemplen mountain range northeast of Budapest, is home to one of the world’s greatest dessert wines produced from grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea. This airborne fungus, while visually alarming, deserves much credit for the intense flavors found in the wines of Tokaj. Fifty years of neglect, however, courtesy of a state run cooperative, saw the vineyards suffer as yields skyrocketed and the agro-chemical industry usurped the vines’ vigor and character. In 1990, investment and new energy began pouring into the vines and wineries of this 26 kilometer stretch. The recent bottlings, made with care and attention to detail, already display enough character and flavor to offer testament of why they were revered during hundreds of years. These bottles, virtual history lessons, are likely to spawn more conversation and intrigue than even the priciest of the lavishly fruit adorned Chardonnays.
I admit a prejudice, a suspicion of wines made with hybrids. But it wasn’t until I tasted Inniskillin’s Ice Wine that I realized just how fabulous Vidal Blanc can be. This wine would convert the most ardent foe of the “stickies,” leaving them to ponder only what will best accompany their new found friend – a gift from our neighbors up north.
What is a DESSERT WINE?
The term dessert wine is an umbrella term that describes a multitude of wines usually served after a meal or with dessert. Late harvest wines, moscato, fortified wines like Port and Sherry, ice wine, Sauternes, Tokaji Asz, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and Commandaria all fall in this category. Their alcohol content can range from as low as 8% (for moscato) to as high as 20% (for Port and other fortified wines) but on average, they tend to be higher in alcohol. The one thing they all have in common is that they have a greater amount of residual sugar than a dry-fermented table wine.
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