Category Archives: Dessert Wine

A Frozen Delight

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Growing grapes to make wine is not a job for anyone who values certainty.  The weather, vine diseases and pests can all intervene and make the difference between a glorious success and a total loss.  And, with the weather, especially, there’s not much you can do to influence things.

Spring frosts will damage or destroy tiny vine shoots, rain during the flowering period (early summer) will interfere with pollination and cool or wet summers will restrict ripening.  Rain during the autumn harvest can introduce rot or dilute the juice. And, hail at any time can destroy an entire crop in minutes.

But, even if the weather behaves as you would like, a number of vineyard diseases can be a nuisance – albeit most are treatable – and lovely sweet, ripe grapes are a great attraction to birds and often mammals, too.

So, not surprisingly, there are often big celebrations when the harvest is safely gathered in.  For most, that will be by late autumn – unless you’re trying to make Ice Wine (“Eiswein” in Germany and Austria).  For this, you need to leave your grapes on the vine (and untouched by pests) until late November or even December when the temperatures reach -8˚C (18˚F) – cold enough to turn the water content of the grape pulp into ice. Then, pickers go out into the vineyard and rush the grapes back to the winery press before they thaw.  The press releases the sugar in the berries but leaves the water content behind as ice pellets.  In this way, the sugar is greatly concentrated and wonderful, sweet wines result.

Given the process and the risks involved, you won’t be surprised to hear that Ice Wine is quite rare and incredibly expensive (expect to pay £30 – £40 a half bottle retail, rather more in restaurants).  Apart from Germany and Austria, some of the best comes from Canada.  A local Bristol restaurant, Adelina Yard, had an example on their list when we visited with some good friends recently and, of course, we couldn’t resist. 

Ice wine 1 (2)Stratus’s Ice Wine from Niagara on the Lake in Canada is made from Riesling – probably the best variety for the style giving a wonderful balancing acidity to the surprisingly delicate, but intense sweetness of the wine. 

A real delight and a triumph for the growers.

 

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.