Late Harvest and Ice Wines

late harvest wines

The term late harvest means that the grapes were picked late into the harvest season when they were ripened past the sugar levels required for ordinary table wine. The extra ripening time-which can be weeks – adds sugar but also adds significant risk from rain, rot, and birds. The high sugar content of the grapes can translate into a wine that's sweet or a wine high in alcohol-or both.

Late harvest wines are known for their rich, honeyed flavors. Riesling grapes (the variety of most late harvest wines) have the ability to develop high sugar levels and, at the same time, maintain their acidity. That's why they can be unbelievably sweet without being cloying. The acidity also helps these white wines to age as well as they do. Late harvest wines aren't limited to Riesling. They're also made from Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, and even Zinfandel.

noble rot

While the Germans have their legend for "inventing" late harvest wines, the French have their own legend for the famous Sauternes wines. It seems a chateau owner told his workers not to pick his grapes until he got back from a trip. By the time he returned, the grapes were infected with a fungus that shriveled them. Despite their disgusting appearance, the grapes were picked and turned into wine. The taste was so exquisite that the owner declared his grapes would thereafter always be picked after the fungus had arrived.

The friendly fungus of the legend is Botrytis cinerea, known affectionately as noble rot. It helps the water in the grape evaporate and causes the grape to shrivel, leaving a more concentrated sweet juice.

A wide range of grapes can benefit from the positive effects of noble rot-Riesling, Chen in Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Furmint among them. Three areas in particular are historically famous for their botrytized wines.

Sauternes-The wine by the same name is made mostly from Sernillon but usually includes some Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes Muscadelle. The sweet Sauternes aren't necessarily made every year. If the grapes don't ripen properly and if Botrytis infection doesn't set in, the winemakers may decide to produce dry wines instead and label them as Bordeaux

Germany-German winemakers use Riesling to produce their Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines.

Hungary-Tokaji (also referred to as Tokay) comes from an area around the town of Tokaj. They're made primarily from Furmint grapes.

ice wines

Who ever would have thought up the idea of making wine from frozen grapes? It was one of those divine accidents. The "discovery" of ice wine dates back to the winter of 1794 when producers in Franconia, Germany, had frozen grapes on their hands and decided to go forward with the pressing. When they finished, they were startled by the high sugar con­centration of the juice.

When grapes freeze, the first solid to form is ice. As the grapes are crushed, the ice is left behind with the other solids-the skins and seeds.

To give you an idea of how concentrated the juice is: If the sugar content of the juice was 22 percent when pressed normally, it would be 50 percent or more after freezing and pressing.

In order for the grapes to freeze, they have to be left on the vine well into the winter months. Waiting for them to freeze can be risky business. If the weather doesn't cooperate and the grapes don't freeze, a grower can lose his entire crop. Harvesting takes place by hand in the early (and necessarily cold) morning hours when acidity levels are at their highest. Pressing produces only tiny amounts of juice-one reason for the extremely high prices of ice wines.

where ice wine is made

Germany and Austria were the traditional producers of ice wine (Eis­wein in German), but in the last ten years Canada has taken over as the largest producer. Canadian winters are much more predictable. The Canadian versions use a variety of grapes besides Riesling, including some lesser-known varieties like Vidal Blanc and Vignoles.

In Canada-as in Germany and Austria-the making of ice wines is strictly regulated. There are standards for sugar levels, temperature at harvest, and for processing. Ice wines are produced in the United States particularly in Washington State, New York's Finger Lakes region, and states around the Great Lakes like Michigan and Ohio. No such strict standards exist for domestic ice wines.

Some producers use an alternate method for making ice wine: They stick the grapes in the freezer before pressing them. The lower prices for these ice wines reflect the easier production.

serving ice wine

Ice wines and sweet late harvest wines come in small (375 ml) bottles with big price tags. It isn't unusual to pay $60 to $200 for a half bottle. Fortunately, you serve less of them-two to three ounces-than you would a table wine. They're best served chilled and in stemware.