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...

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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.

Recommended late-harvest wines

Three Rivers 2003 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer “Biscuit Ridge Vineyard”; $18.
This multiple award-winner is a treasure. Complex and showing a hint of spritz, it regales you with rich grapefruit and a whisper of pear. The wine is specially priced this month when ordered directly from the winery (509-526-9463). Note that the price quoted is for a full-size bottle.

Tsillan Cellars 2003 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer; $24.95
per 250ml bottle. Lots of broad, fresh pear and grapefruit flavors. Tasters found this one “a little more acidic, which makes the fruit a little fresher. Serve with a pear or cheese tart?”

Gold Digger 2003 Late Harvest Riesling; $20/375ml.
This is a big, juicy wine that tastes like extra ripe apricots, mint, tropical fruit and hints of bubble gum. A flavor parade.

Recommended ice wines
(in order of preference)

Mission Hill 2003 S.L.C. Riesling Ice Wine; $75/375ml.
“Night harvested at minus 12 degrees Celsius” reads the label, just in case you were wondering how much pain and grief the winemaker went through to produce this nectar. This has all the classic components of great ice wine. It is incredibly dense without being syrupy, deep without being monotonous, sweet without being cloying. The flavors are wrapped and coiled around each other, and they weave a sinuous path down your throat; first honey, then pineapple, then pink grapefruit, then peaches, then caramel, key lime and on and on.

Jackson-Triggs 2002 Grand Reserve Riesling Ice Wine; $52/375ml.
Here is spectacular fruit that shows an almost unbelievable depth of concentration. Layers of every citrus and stone fruit imaginable, candy, honey and tea lead into long, taffylike flavors of caramel, nougat and toffee. What a flavor ride!

Mission Hill 2003 Reserve Riesling Ice Wine (Okanagan Valley); $55/375ml.
A good, more mainstream effort with sweet pineapple in the center, honey and lime and cream swirling around the edges, and enough acid to keep it from being cloying. Good length and clarity, with a clean, varietal finish.

Ste. Chapelle 2003 Riesling Ice Wine; $19/375ml
. Picked and crushed frozen; this is classic and complex, with surprising elegance and power for the price. Long and delicious.

Inniskillin 2003 Vidal Ice Wine (Niagara Peninsula); $59/375ml.
Vidal is a grape virtually unknown in the U.S. but quite successful in eastern Canada, especially for its exotic ice wines. The complex bouquet includes citrus blossom, honey, lychee and hints of herb. It hits the mouth hard, with a plump, somewhat herbaceous middle, then the honeyed fruit kicks in.

Kiona 2003 Chenin Blanc Ice Wine; $20/375ml.
This wine really got the group chatting! “Texture is amazing. I’ve never tasted anything like this. A little would go a long way. In there somewhere is grape Nehi! Very sweet, buttery and grapey; silky and extremely rich.” Food ideas? “Something crumbly without much sugar, like a nut tort. No frosting or sauce — this really is the frosting and the sauce!”

Covey Run 2003 Riesling Ice Wine; $21/375ml.
Big, fairly thick flavors of peach and apricot. Stone fruits and hints of tea and honey in the finish. Good for the price.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2003 Riesling Ice Wine; $50/375ml;

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2002 Reserve White Riesling Ice Wine; $50/375ml.
Super sweet — “a lollipop in your mouth.” The ’02 is a touch more interesting than the ’03, with extremely sweet flavors of candied citrus peel, butterscotch and hints of diesel. But some tasters found them a bit one-dimensional.

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

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at