Having discussed some of the best known sweet wines, Port and Sherry, I thought it might be fun to briefly examine two lesser known styles of sweet wine; late harvest and ice wines. Both are made from grapes picked very late in the season, but there are some key differences.
Late Harvest Wines
By definition, all grapes used to make late harvest wines are allowed to hang on the vine longer than those intended for dry table wines. This causes the ripening process (véraison in French) to continue through late fall and early winter, which greatly increases the sugar content of the grapes. The “Brix” of grapes, which is a measurement of their sugar content, is often around 24° to 26° for dry table wines, but it can be over 35° in late harvest wines. Each 1° Brix represents approximately 1 gram of dissolved sugar per 100 grams of liquid. Table grapes, as a point of reference, typically have around 17° to 19° Brix, which gives you an idea of just how sweet wine grapes are when harvested and how very sweet late harvest wine grapes would be if eaten.
Not that you necessarily would want to eat late harvest grapes. Leaving the grapes on the vine for such a long time carries with it certain risks. One of those risks is that the grapes will rot. Sometimes this rot can be beneficial, as in the case of botrytis cinerea (a/k/a “noble rot”), but often times it is destructive gray mold (which is really runaway botrytis) or black rot, which means wasted product. The chances of rot increase substantially if the fall conditions are wet. Another risk with late harvest wines is that the grapes will fall off the vine or be eaten by birds and other animals. This inevitable crop loss is one of the reasons late harvest wines can be so expensive. The fewer grapes the winemaker can harvest, the smaller his production will be, which translates into greater demand and higher prices.
On top of the relatively small amount of grapes capable of being harvested is the fact that the grapes themselves produce so much less juice than normal wine grapes. Whether the grapes experience noble rot or not, they will likely have shriveled, which can decrease the amount of available juice by half or more. Further, the grapes shrivel and become affected by noble rot in a non-uniform way, which necessitates, in the case of the world’s best late harvest wines, very careful hand harvesting. It is not uncommon for the producers of late harvest wines to send their pickers through the vineyards five or six times. This type of labor is back-breaking and can cost the winemaker a considerable sum. Some lower cost late harvest wines are harvested mechanically, but the quality of the grapes is variable as they all may not have reached peak maturity.
Low crop yields, low juice production from the harvested grapes and intensive, costly labor combined with the need to cover losses experienced in bad years means that you’re going to pay a pretty penny for the best examples of late harvest wine. That being said, there are deals to be found from some of the lesser known producers and from countries where the economy is depressed. Either way, late harvest wines are a great example of supply and demand economics in operation.
In terms of style, late harvest wines are moderately to very sweet. These wines will often have a viscous texture and can taste of honey and dried fruit. The sweetness level can vary, but a good indicator of the wine’s sweetness is it’s alcohol by volume or ABV. The fact that late harvest wines are rarely fortified means the ABV is a good indication of how much sugar was converted into alcohol during fermentation. Late harvest wines with a higher ABV, say around 12%, are often moderately sweet, while wines with an ABV of 10% or less are typically very sweet. Dry table wine, in comparison, is often between 13-14% ABV. This is merely a rule of thumb, though, as certain grapes in very good years can achieve a Brix approaching 45°, which can in turn produce a very sweet wine with around 12% ABV.
Like all late harvest wines, the grapes for ice wines are left on the vine longer than normal. Ice wine grapes are actually allowed to stay on the vine until the first hard freeze occurs. Temperatures before harvest need to reach 17° F or so in most countries for the wine to be labeled ice wine. The freezing of the grapes acts much like the raisining that happens with other late harvest wines, either through normal water evaporation due to heat or due to the beneficial effects of noble rot; it causes water to evaporate from the grapes leading to a concentration of sugars and flavors.
Ice wines, however, should not be affected to any great degree by botrytis. In fact, regions prone to botrytis typically have very different climates than those places where ice wine is made. Thus, you won’t often find ice wine being made where botrytised wines are produced and vice versa. Yes, there are places in the world where both can be made and the choice of one over the other often depends entirely on the weather.
The production of ice wine brings its own unique harvesting procedures. The grapes are typically hand harvested at night when the temperatures are very low. The work is painful. Try using a pair of pruning sheers at midnight in the dead of winter to pick frozen bunches of grapes from snow-covered vines; it’s dark and bone-chilling. One thing it’s not is cheap. Such labor can cost the vineyard a princely sum. Once harvested, the grapes are pressed in their frozen state. If the grapes are too frozen, very little juice will be extracted and the pressing machines can be severely damaged. All of this adds up to increased costs for the consumer.
The results, however, are often spectacular. I’m not sure exactly what happens to the grapes when they are frozen, but the resulting concoction can be divine. Like other late harvest wines, ice wines can be almost syrupy in texture. The lack of botrytis in ice wine means the aromas and flavors are often more typical of the grape variety employed, though much more concentrated. And you don’t always have to pay exorbitant amounts for a good bottle – shop around and you’re bound to find a deal.
Like other sweet wines, late harvest and ice wines typically have much greater aging potential than dry table wines. There is a prevalent myth that “all wines get better with age,” which just isn’t true, but rest assured that your sweet wines can sit for a while, under proper storage conditions, before they go bad.
That being said, most late harvest and ice wines should probably be consumed within 5-10 years of bottling. The world’s best sweet wines, like the aforementioned Sauternes and Tokaji, on the other hand, can easily age for decades (perhaps even centuries?) under the proper conditions. Most people simply don’t have a cellar with the consistent temperatures and humidity required for long-term aging. Accordingly, feel free to lay them down in your wine rack for a few years, but you’ll probably find your late harvest and ice wines best if served slightly chilled shortly after purchase.
Conclusion and Looking Forward
With this article, I’m nearing the end of my pre-planned “general knowledge” content. If you’ve been reading thus far, I hope you feel like you’ve learned something along the way. Writing these articles has been fun for me and I’m looking forward to the future. I’ll undoubtedly have a few more “general knowledge” articles to post along the way, but you may also begin seeing detailed discussions of specific wines and wine regions. I hope you’ll continue reading (all 25 of you!) and spread the word to anyone you know who might find this website interesting. Thanks for your support, it’s much appreciated.
EOS Tears of Dew Late Harvest Moscato
- This wine is a very golden yellow. It is slightly darker in appearance than a heavily oaked chardonnay.
- Aromatically, this wine is wonderful. I get peaches, apricots, honey and even a hint of toffee.
- On the palette, this wine is thick. It’s definitely not the thickest late harvest I’ve had, nor is it the lightest. It’s actually just about perfect.
- Those peaches and apricots really come through on the taste buds. It’s nice to get those classic varietal flavors you can also find in Moscato d’Asti.
- Conclusion: At $22 per half bottle, this wine is definitely worth a shot. I think you’ll be pleased.
Ste. Chapelle Ice Wine Riesling
Truth be told, you may have some trouble finding this wine locally. I would suggest calling the winery to see if they’ll ship direct. If not, you can always join their “Harvest Wine Club,” which will get you four bottles of sweet wine for $30 plus shipping ($7.50 a bottle!).
This wine is a great example of ice wine’s aging potential. I sampled the 14 year old 1998 vintage and it may have lost a little life, but not much. Of course, I’ll have to try a more recent vintage, just to be sure…
- This wine is a bit darker than the Tears of Dew. I wondered if it had slightly oxidized, but that later turned out to be untrue (at least by my estimation).
- The bouquet is more restrained than the Tears of Dew, but that is to be expected. Riesling is an aromatic grape, but I feel it is more restrained, in general, than Moscato. Still, I get candied apples, citrus and a touch of molasses on the nose.
- In body, this wine is on the light side. The sweetness is not cloying or overblown. I taste melons, apricots and the faintest hint of toasted hazelnut.
- The wine is well balanced, though not overly complex. The finish is shorter than I anticipated.
- Conclusion: If you can find this wine or get it directly from the producer for a reasonable amount ($10/375ML bottle), I’d say go for it.