When the holidays arrive, it’s time to bring out wines created by blasts of bone-chilling cold — ice wines — or by long, warm Indian summers — late harvest wines.
Three Washington wineries ranging from industry giant Ste. Michelle Wine Estates down to 30,000-case Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain and 25,000-case Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla have long histories of producing dessert wines.
Adapting the traditions of France and Germany, all three regularly produce award-winning versions styled after the German beerenauslese (BA), trochebeerenauslese (TBA) and eiswien. German versions, made mostly from Riesling, and French Sauternes, made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, can be cost-prohibitive.
“They’re some of the world’s most expensive and most collectible wines,” JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards and Winery tells visitors. Luckily, Northwest equivalents are more affordable, with top quality late harvest versions often selling for $25 to $35. Best-quality ice wines typically sell for $30 to $60 for half-size bottles.
Kiona’s first late harvest wine was a 1981 Riesling made by the founder of the three-generation operation, John Williams, and grown in the adjacent Ciel du Cheval vineyard, now owned by former Kiona partner Jim Holmes.
Their newest will be a 2019 ice wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in their vineyards on the west side of the winery and picked at the end of October. The 2018 Chenin version was released recently and is easily available, with 2,290 cases produced. It sells for $50 for a 375-milliliter bottle.
In years when arctic cold doesn’t arrive, winemaker and principal owner Scott Williams and his crew produce a late harvest version titled “Fortunate Sun.” In late fall, they strip leaves off the west side of their Chenin Blanc vines and let the afternoon sun dry the grapes into raisins, which make a rich, honeyed, slightly spicy dessert wine.
David Rosenthal, head white winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, oversees a well-stocked array of dessert wines made mostly from Riesling. His passion for them was evident as he explained the three days of picking at the Riesling vineyard on the north side of Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Crest Winery near Paterson, Wash.
On day one, crews hand harvest clusters that are 75% or more affected with botrytis, the mold often called “noble rot,” which helps dehydrate the grapes and concentrates sugars to about 45 brix and accentuates flavors. These are made into a TBA-style wine. On day two, crews pick grapes 50-75% affected by botrytis that are about 40 brix. These are pressed “not too hard,” he said, and made into a BA-styled late harvest wine. On day three, clusters that are 40-50% botrytis affected are picked at about 35 brix. They are made into Eroica Gold.
The ice wine is made from clusters free of botrytis that are picked when temperatures fall to 17 degrees or colder. This year, that was Oct. 30 at the site in the Horse Heaven Hills.
No matter which dessert wine he’s making, Rosenthal said the key is getting the sugar-acid balance just right, so the sweetness isn’t overwhelming. Fermentation typically takes weeks of careful monitoring and proceeds slowly at very cool temperatures.
For an industry giant that produces millions of bottles of wine, its dessert wine production is minuscule: The TBA-styled wine might be as little as 30 cases, the ice wine 400-500, the late harvest 250-300 and the Eroica Gold about 800 cases.
But Rosenthal notes these are wines with impact: Their top tier Eroica 2014 ice wine scored 95 points from Wine Spectator and commands $60 for a 375-milliliter bottle.
Rob Compisi of Dunham Cellars is in some ways the new kid on the block, having taken over as head winemaker there in 2018. Before that, he was cellarmaster after joining Dunham in 2008 and became assistant winemaker in 2012. His experience with Dunham’s Lewis Vineyard Riesling grapes from the Yakima Valley AVA began with his first harvest.
In his 12 harvests at Dunham, the winery has made four ice wines and also regularly crafted late harvest versions. Like Williams and Rosenthal, he stresses “finding the right balance” of acid and sugar. For his 2016 late harvest, a pH of 3.64, about 8 grams of acid per liter and sugars at 43 brix at harvest resulted in 27.3% residual sugar and 8.4% alcohol after fermentation, which seemed about ideal.
The resulting wines, he said, “get a lot of interest.” Dunham’s 2016 Late Harvest Riesling is popular at their winemaker dinners, he added. It sells for $38 for a 375-milliliter bottle.
The price for such wines might seem high, but consider this: Rosenthal said yields from the vines picked for his dessert wines run about 1-1½ tons per acre. A typical yield for non-dessert Riesling is nearly 5 tons. Those wines typically sell for $10-$24. And they don’t require hand picking in the dark at below-freezing temperatures or the extensive and expensive steps to make high-quality late harvest and ice wines.
Wine words: Botrytis Cinerea
How about a little Latin for our wine term this edition? Often called “noble rot,” it might not sound at all appealing, but in the great dessert wine-producing regions of the world, it’s a hallowed fungus that affects wine grapes.
It’s recognizable as a grayish-pink to -white mold. What would appear to be a problem for those who grow late harvest grapes for sweet wines is actually highly desired.
By dehydrating the grape clusters as they ripen in late fall, botrytis concentrates sugars and fruit flavors. When the juice is made into wine, the result can be stunningly lush and voluptuous, offering honeyed, often spicy aromas and flavors.
Eastern Washington weather conditions often don’t encourage botrytis. On hot and dry Red Mountain, JJ Williams said he could recall only one botrytised wine from Kiona over the years. For Rosenthal, Riesling grown near the north crest of the Horse Heavens attracts morning fogs off the nearby Columbia River, encouraging botrytis.