In the spectrum of wines, from red to white to pink, sparkling to still, at the
far end of the 'sweetness' scale is dessert wine. Intensely sweet, a high-quality dessert wine can
be richly flavored, complex and downright ethereal. Below we highlight the different ways
dessert wines can be made, how that impacts the character of the wine and what to consider when
pairing with food:
Late Harvest Dessert Wines
One of the most simple ways to craft a dessert wine is simply by harvesting the grapes
late. Left on the vine when there is still good ripening weather, grapes will continue to sweeten.
A fine balance has to be struck between attaining those high sugar levels and having the grapes
simply dry out into raisins since undesirable flavors can come if this process goes too far.
Late harvest wines may also be affected by botrytis - a special type of fungus - that is described
below, but that is not necessarily the case. Wines affected by botrytis will generally be
significantly sweeter than those that are simply picked late. In some cases, individual grapes that
show more advanced ripeness may be picked out of the bunches by hand to get an even more
highly concentrated wine. An example is the family of German 'auslese' wines which literally
translates to 'pick out'.
Dessert Wines from Botrytis or "Noble
Normally, any type of rot is the last thing you want for growing grapes - but there is
one type that is desirable and ideal for quality dessert wines. Botrytis, also nicknamed
'noble rot', develops under wet conditions and can ruin a crop. If conditinos wet enough to lead to
botrytis are followed by dry conditions, the fungus will effectively remove water from the grapes
leaving behind the sugar and flavor components in higher concentration.
Sauternes from Bordeaux is one of the most famous examples of wine affected by botrytis, but many
other wine regions can also produce these dessert wines. German Beerenauslese and
Trockenbeerenauslese wines are generally produced from grapes highly affected by botrytis while the
lesser Auslese may be affected only mildly or not at all and will generally be more moderately
sweet and less rich in body.
Ice Wine or 'Eiswein' Dessert Wines
Under very special growing conditions, a wine being grown for late harvest
picking can be made into ice wine - when the grapes actually freeze on the vine with
frost. Freezing causes the water in the grapes to turn into ice crystals, so during pressing this
solid matter is left with the skins and pulp and the juice that comes off is highly
concentrated in sugar. The English term for this style of wine is Ice Wine, and in Germany is
called 'Eiswein' which translates to the same.
Making ice wine requires a sharp enough frost to arrive when good ripening weather
still exists, which is exceedingly rare. and ice wines may not be able to be
made in every vintage if weather does not cooperate. For many years, Germany had a
nearly exclusive reign over the production of ice wines although it could only be made in a few
vintages each decade. The Niagara area of Canada also has particularly unique and remarkably
consistent conditions year to year for making ice wine.
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