Living in the Atkins age, dessert wines have become guilty pleasures. Though many, if not most, of the world's wineries make something sweet (I like the Australian word for sweet...
Living in the Atkins age, dessert wines have become guilty pleasures.
Though many, if not most, of the world’s wineries make something sweet (I like the Australian word for sweet wines: stickies), dessert wines are often sold out of tasting rooms or through special wine clubs rather than on the open market.
Since this is the high season for rich, decadent foods and wines, I opened an intriguing selection of stickies for a group of friends at a pre-holiday gathering in Port Townsend. We tasted a mixture (some older bottles, some new) of late-harvest and ice wines from California, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia.
We gathered ’round a copper-covered kitchen counter, sitting on high wooden stools and gazing out at the placid waters of Discovery Bay. The house we were occupying had no proper dessert glasses, so we improvised, using egg cups in the shape of small glass chickens.
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The world of stickies is vast and diverse, but our focus was on sweet white wines, especially riesling. These are expensive treats; in fact, the most expensive wine ever made in Washington is a Chateau Ste. Michelle Single Berry Select riesling that costs more than $200 for a half bottle. On the other hand, some Washington wineries — Covey Run and Kiona in particular — have long track records for making excellent sweet wines (and ice wines) at very reasonable prices.
To help keep them (somewhat) affordable, most late-harvest and ice wines are packaged in 375s (half bottles). They are often tall and slim and make an elegant presentation sitting on the table all by themselves, without decanting. These wines should be served chilled but not ice cold. Small glasses are best (though perhaps the egg cups were a bit over the top).
The intense sweetness and luscious layers of flavor in the best stickies means that a little goes a long, long way. A half bottle is easily enough for four people and can even be stretched to serve six.
There are significant differences between late-harvest and ice wines. The term “Late Harvest” has no legal definition in the U.S. It generally means that the grapes were allowed to ripen past the sugar levels at which ordinary dry table wines are picked. The extra ripening may extend hangtime for weeks, and it adds considerable risk (from rain, rot and especially birds) as well as expense.
Late-harvest wines are sweet and generally lower in alcohol than dry wines because the grapes are not completely fermented. Blame my Northwest palate, but I find that most late-harvest wines from California, even the highly rated expensive ones, are syrupy and cloying. Too often they taste flabby and sweet but lack definition and texture.
True ice wines are rare indeed. In Canada, Germany and Austria, ice wine (or eiswein) is strictly regulated. There are standards for sugar levels and temperatures at harvest, and other regulations regarding the actual pressing of the grapes. Here in the U.S. some producers still use cryoextraction to freeze and press ordinary late-harvest grapes, so an ice wine may not always be the real McCoy. Look for some indication on any non-Canadian ice wine that suggests that the grapes were actually picked and crushed at below-freezing temperatures.
What ice wine delivers that ordinary late-harvest wines do not are extremely concentrated, tropical fruit flavors (often pineapple is the dominant note) along with a crystalline clarity and vivid acidity. These wines are ready to drink when released, and although they will keep in a wine cellar for many years, I have not found that domestic ice wines improve once they are more than 4 or 5 years old.
Here is a list of some of the gems we tasted and enjoyed, along with a few comments from the tasters and thoughts on food pairings. Most late-harvest or ice wines have been given extra care and attention by the winemaker, and they really do add a special kind of magic to any festive occasion.
Jan. 20-23 is the Okanagan Ice Wine Festival at Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia. For information call 800-807-3257 or see the downloadable brochure at www.thewinefestivals.com
Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.