They say the best gifts come in small packages, but personally, I get excited over a bottle-shaped present tied with a big, red bow. (Santa baby, take note.) Holiday celebrations are the perfect time to treat your friends, family—and yourself—to vinous pleasures beyond the usual red, white and sparkling. Sweet, unctuous late-harvest and ice wines are in their element in the depths of winter and make for something special on a cold night.
These dessert wines are made from grapes left on the vine long past normal harvest time, they deliberately over-ripen and “raisin” as moisture loss concentrates the sugars. Sometimes, a mold called Botrytis cinerea appears. On regular grapes, this is bad, but on late-harvest grapes this “noble rot” is welcome. It penetrates the skin, which aids dehydration and adds subtle, desirable flavors; it’s similar to what mold does to cheese. When pressed, these grapes yield a syrupy juice.
In cold climates, grapes freeze on the vine when left hanging late in the harvest. Water locked in ice crystals is left behind during pressing, making the juice even sweeter. Some winemakers force- freeze late-harvest grapes, but this doesn’t really replicate the natural freeze-thaw cycles that create the chemical and physical changes of true ice wines. In regular wine all, or almost all, sugar is converted to about 11-14 percent alcohol within a month. But in late-harvest/ice wines, fermentation takes up to a year and afterwards there is still 8-12 percent residual sugar. That’s quite sweet, considering that an average person can detect as little as 1 percent sugar.
Technical notes aside, these pale-to deep-golden wines are intensely pleasurable to drink.
They smell and taste of heavenly honey, nectar, caramel, spice, cream or dried apricot, with a tingle of acidity. They improve with age, gaining hard-to- describe yet fascinating complexities. Late-harvest and ice wines are excel- lent with after-dinner cheeses, foie gras and roasted nuts. And though lovely with dessert, they will eclipse all but the best-quality pie and ice cream. Sip slowly to allow flavors to unfold.
They also tend to be expensive. The most famous late-harvest wine in the world, the ethereal Château d’Yquem, from Sauternes, a small appellation in Graves, France, fetches an average of $476 per 375ml bottle. For centuries, the noble rot that made these wines was a closely guarded secret. Tokaji wines from Hungary are also held in high esteem. German styles abound, like the wonderfully named Trocken-beerenauslese, which literally means “dried berries selected harvest.”
Canada is the queen of ice wines (for obvious reasons). They gained international recognition when Niagara’s Inniskillin Estates won a top award in 1991, the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Bordeaux’s VinExpo. From the Finger Lakes, the Casa Larga Fiori Vidal Ice Wine also wins many domestic awards.
Close to home, Jamesport Vineyards 2010 Late Harvest Riesling is a great example from the “endless summer” vintage. Wölffer Estate’s winemaker Roman Roth hails from Germany and has a talent for late-harvest wines; they currently offer the Diosa Late Harvest 2013. Pugliese Vineyards has a gorgeous 2011 Late Harvest Niagara and the owner loves to personalize gift bottles with fruit and floral motifs.