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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Dessert Wines Made Eight Ways

As mentioned previously in this chapter, eight methods are used to make dessert wines. We’ve already discussed four methods—those used to make sweet Champagne, Porto, Sherry, and Madeira. To summarize, sweet Champagne has a dosage of sugar and older wine added to make it sweeter. This is how the rest of the world makes different sweetness levels of sparkling wine using the Champagne method. Porto was our example of a sweet dessert wine that is made by stopping fermentation with brandy to kill the yeast and leave the natural grape sugar in the wine. Cream Sherry is produced using a third method of making sweet dessert wine by adding a separate golden sweet wine made from a different grape variety. Finally, the technique for producing Madeira—baking the wine in ovens to carmelize the sugars and adding grape spirits to the barrels to stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted by the yeast—represents a fourth way to make dessert wine. The remaining four methods are discussed in the sections that follow.

Pressing Frozen Grapes: Eiswein or Ice Wine

The fifth of the eight types of dessert wine that we are discussing is Eiswein in German or Ice Wine in English. Since Germany has the northernmost vineyards in Europe, it must contend with very cold weather. In some growing seasons, it is so cold after normal harvest time that a hard frost (or snow) freezes the grapes. These frozen grapes are picked before dawn (when the grapes begin to thaw), and pressed to release a deliciously sweet juice that’s fermented into Eiswein. In certain years, Eiswein grapes are harvested before Christmas and after New Year’s so that two vintage years appear on the label.

Mother Nature alone makes this wine. As the frozen grapes are pressed, the water content of the grapes is held as ice crystals. The ice doesn’t pass into the pressed juice, which makes the wine quite concentrated and sweet. In Germany, Riesling grapes are used to make Eiswein, but Ice Wines in other parts of the world can be made from other varieties, such as Gewürztraminer in New Zealand, Vidal in Niagara, Canada or New York state, and Muscat in California.

Some Niagara peninsula Ice Wines from Canada are in such demand that they can cost more than $90 per half bottle. German Eiswein, which is a world-class wonder of delight and delicacy, is a comparative bargain at less than half that price, and New Zealand Ice Wines are even less expensive. Like Canada, the U.S. does not allow the use of the German word Eiswein, so California wineries such as Bonnie Doon called their wine made from frozen grapes "vin glaciere" in French.

How Botrytis and Late Harvesting Produce Dessert Wines

The sixth way to make dessert wines is with raisin grapes that have been shriveled by Botrytis, the noble rot fungus. An example of a dessert wine produced this way is the prestigious Sauternes of Bordeaux, which is a Botrytis Semillon. The noble rot fungus is not a common occurrence. Only the right conditions of temperature and humidity in perfect vintage years set the stage for Botrytis to appear naturally. That is what is so amazing about any dessert wine labeled Botrytis. In addition, the grapes must be late harvested, which means that there must be extra weeks of sunshine to ripen the grapes long past the normal harvest time.

In Germany, the most expensive and sweetest wines made in great vintage years with plenty of sunshine are true Trockenbeerenauslese, which means they’re made only from Botrytis-affected shriveled grapes. Only Botrytis can give a wine its distinctive honeycomb aroma—like the entire beehive of honey, royal jelly, and beeswax. That’s why collectors are willing to pay the price for these golden sweet Botrytis wines. Another world-famous late harvest Botrytis desert wine is Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú.

Other sweet dessert wines made from late harvest grapes do not necessarily have Botrytis. These wines are picked or harvested in stages in Germany with the Spatlese—meaning "late harvest" in German—coming in first. Workers are then sent back through the vineyards several times, a week or so apart, to pick the ripest grapes out of each bunch. So there are actually several grades of sweetness in the late harvest German wines. Winemakers in other parts of the world who want to emulate this late harvest style of dessert wine also have to pray for long weeks of sunshine so that they can harvest and produce these great dessert wines.

Making Vin Santo—Italy’s Sweet Holy Wine

The seventh of our eight types of dessert wine is Vin Santo. Vin Santo was originally the name of the Greek dessert wine from the beautiful island of Santorini. When the Italians from Venice controlled Greece centuries ago, they became fans of Vin Santo. When they no longer controlled Greece, they decided to make their own supply of Vin Santo in Italy.

To this day, Vin Santo is one of Italy’s most famous dessert wines. It is made in a special process where the white grapes are hung on hooks to dry on the upper level of the wineries where it is very hot under the roof, even with the shutters open. The drying process shrivels the grapes to raisins. These white raisins are crushed and then fermented in small oak barrels for a very long time. They create an amber color dessert wine that tastes and smells like fruitcake.

Each area of Italy uses its own homegrown white grape variety to make its version of Vin Santo. I’ve had wonderful examples of Vin Santo in Tuscany, particularly from the area of San Gimignano where the white Vernaccia grape is used. It was a highlight of our trip there to drink Vin Santo with excellent almond biscotti, and to do as the Italians do, dip and soften the biscotti in Vin Santo. Upscale Italian restaurants offer this as a dessert course.

Stopping Fermentation to Determine Sweetness

Our final and eighth type of dessert wine is made from very ripe grapes whose fermentation stops automatically when the alcohol level rises over 15 percent. At this level of alcohol, the wine yeasts die and no longer ferment any more grape sugar, leaving the wine sweet. At what point the fermentation stops is really determined by the winemaker, who controls the sweetness of the outcome by chilling the wine so low that fermentation stops, or by filtering out the yeast so there is no more yeast to continue fermentation. Of course, it all depends on how sweet the grapes were to begin with. Very ripe late harvest grapes can be twice as high in natural sugar as grapes that are used to make dry wines. That’s why we must depend on Mother Nature to cooperate in the vineyard, or these great dessert wines simply cannot be made.

To do list

  • Learn why winemakers use specific bottle colors for certain wine types

  • Learn what a wine bottle’s shape might reveal about its contents

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