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May 12, 2011 11:49 am

Just Desserts: The Wonderful World of Sweet Wines

avatar by Yossie Horwitz

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Recent years have been kind to the kosher Oenophile with a proliferation of kosher wines from all around the world. Together with a massive increase in the quality, sophistication and diversity of winemaking styles, Kosher winemakers have also shown successful experimentation with new varietals such as Viognier, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and others bringing the kosher wine consumer more good choices for quality kosher wine than ever before including kosher versions of French Bordeaux, Californian cult- Cabernet Sauvignon, true Champagne and many other liquid treats.

However and certainly irrespective of this recent embarrassment of riches, one great type of wine for which incredible kosher versions abound seems unable to shake the adage-old, pre-conceived, notion that kosher wine is bad – why can’t kosher dessert wines get any respect?

Part of the answer derives from folk’s stubborn association of kosher sweet wine with the bad versions of sweet alcoholic punch like Manischewitz, Malaga or Bartenura’s infamously blue-bottled Moscato D’Asti. An unfortunate association at best given the delectably sweet yet sophisticated dessert wines widely available to the kosher consumer who’s only shared characteristic with such abominations is that they are sweet. However, these delicious dessert wines are also blessed with sufficient mouth-watering acidity, depth and complexity to be enjoyed by even the most sophisticated wine lover. While one can only fantasize about a kosher Chateau d’Yquem, there are an increasing number of top-notch dessert wines from around the world that are more than worthy of your attention, palate and hard-earned shekels.

While all grapes contain a certain level of natural sugar, the fermentation process that creates wine from the juice of crushed grapes converts most of that natural sugar into alcohol leaving most wines dry. For the old-fashioned Kiddush wines, sugar is typically added following the fermentation process, creating the heavy sweet wines that contributed to giving kosher wine a bad name to begin with.

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In order to create a sweet wine tempered with sufficient alcohol and acidity to the wine from becoming too heavy and flabby on your palate, there are a number of methodologies are available. The three most common methods are harvesting the grapes later than usual (called “Late-Harvest Wines”); crushing frozen grapes to make the initial juice (“Icewine”); or utilizing grapes that have been infected with a special fungus or rot that dehydrates the grapes (“Botrytis” or “Noble Rot” Wines). The common denominator for all three methods is that they increase the grape’s sugar by reducing the amount of water as much as possible. Another common method is fortifying the wine with additional alcohol during the fermentation process which stops the fermentation process of converting the sugar to alcohol. This method is how Port – another sweet dessert type of wine – is made.
In this article we will explore these three methodologies and provide a number of recommendations for top-notch wines made in all three ways.

Of the three methodologies mentioned above, the one which involves the least amount of technical tinkering are “late-harvest” wines. As indicated by their name, such wines are made by harvesting the grapes much later than usual allowing them to shrivel on the vine and concentrate their sugars. While no additional technical work is required, this can be an extremely nerve-wracking process for the wine maker as the timing of the harvest has to be exactly right and the longer the grapes remain on the vines, the more exposed they are too potentially bad weather that could arrive at any time and destroy the entire harvest. Riesling is one of the most popular grapes used to make late-harvest wine with good examples being the Teperberg Silver Late Harvest White Riesling and Hagafen’s multitude of various late harvest White Riesling wines. In addition to Riesling, both Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are commonly used wines as well. Some wineries have recently experimented with red varietals as well but, to date, these wines have not reached the level of their white brethren.

Eiswein, or Icewine, is made from grapes that have been frozen either naturally on the vines by frosty weather or artificially in the winery. As the grapes are subjected to the freezing temperatures, the water in the grapes freezes while the natural sugar and other solids don’t. This provides a far more concentrated grape “must” that is then pressed from the frozen grapes resulting in a significantly higher level of concentration of not only the residual sugar but also the natural grape flavors. Naturally occurring Ice wines require extremely low temperatures which must occur after the grapes are ripe. In order to be marketed as Ice wine in Canada or Germany, the law mandates a minimum temperature of 8°C/7°C or colder, respectively. As with the Late-Harvest Wines, there is a small window of opportunity for this freezing process to occur following the grape’s ripening. If a freeze does not come quickly enough the grapes rot and the entire crop may be lost. If the freeze is too severe, the grapes will over-freeze, become too hard and no juice can be extracted. As a result, naturally occurring Ice wines are relatively rare and very expensive. While Austria, Germany and Canada mandate a natural freeze for Ice wines to be marketed as such, many other countries, including Israel, allow for artificial methods to simulate the effect of a freeze which allows the grapes to remain on the vine for shorter periods and minimizes the risk of losing the harvest. This artificial freezing of the grapes is commonly referred to as cryoextraction and is how the Heightswine from the Yarden line of the Golan Heights Winery is produced.

One of the most famous dessert wines is Sauternes Wines which are grown in the Sauternes district of Graves in southern Bordeaux. The majority of these wines are produced from the Sémillon grape and the most famous of them is Chateau d’Yquem (pronounced d’ee kem), the only wine receive the elite Premier Cru Supérieur classification in the 1855 classification of French wines. The sweetness of these wines is achieved from being infected by Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus also known as the “Noble Rot”. Botrytis dehydrates the grapes and also adds a distinct taste and character to the resulting wine redolent of honey and heather. These wines are very labor intensive as the grapes must be hand-picked, sometimes over a long period of time as many passes are made over each vine with only the appropriately infected grapes being picked each time. This picking results in exceedingly low yields and exorbitantly expensive wines with some d’Yquem wines going for $10,000 a bottle for select vintages. D’Yquem also benefits from extreme longevity as bottles from 1893 are still drinking well. Among kosher dessert wines, Sauternes is your best bet for a long-living wine.

While in Sauternes, the moist mornings followed by hot days which burn off the moisture allowing for the continued ripening of the grapes provide a natural breeding ground for the fungus, this process is also fraught with anxiety. If the rains arrive too early, grey rot will set in potentially destroying the harvest. In Israel, Botrytis is found only sporadically and a natural Botrytis wine was produced only once -the near mythical Yarden Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc of 1988 which I once had the opportunity to taste but could never locate any bottles for same. Israel’s Botrytis wine – the Noble Semillon from the Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden line (which is reviewed below) is produced by artificially infecting the grapes after harvest in the winery. Many wineries use small quantities of naturally occurring Botrytis in their, usually Late-Harvest, dessert wines but never enough to qualify them as true Botrytis wines. In addition to those from Sauternes, some other well-known Botrytis wines hail from Barsac or the Aszú wines of Tokaj Hungary.

Below are a number of highly recommended wines made in the three various methodologies described below. Given the incredible labor necessary to selectively harvest these grapes and the fact that yields are driven down so low, dessert wines tend to be more expensive than your regular dry table wines. Coupled with their intense sweetness and ability to be served as an actual dessert as opposed to a dessert accompaniment, these wines are regularly bottles in half (i.e. 375 ml) or slightly larger (i.e. 500 ml) sized bottles.

Late-Harvest

Hagafen, Prix Vineyards, Late Harvest Chardonnay, 2006: A product of Hagafen’s “Prix” wine club, this wine is simply amazing. A very dark golden colored, full-bodied wine made from Chardonnay grapes with Botrytis elements felt throughout this wine. Very sweet but with enough acidity to keep the sweetness from overpowering the wine’s aromas and flavors. On the nose citrus, apple orchards and hints of caramel, spices and vanilla which follow through onto a delightful palate of sugar, apples and limes all with intense hints of heathery Botrytis which lead into a long lingering finish. The wine is drinking nicely now and should cellar for at least another 3-4 years.

Carmel, Sha’al Single Vineyard, Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, 2006: A great Israeli desert wine which gives the various Yarden dessert wines a serious run for their money and makes for a better buy. The 2005 vintage was rated a 90 by Robert Parker. Extremely well made with great balance between the generous sweetness and bracing acidity. While not a Botrytis wine per se, a portion of grapes used in the wine were infected with the noble rot giving it hints of heather and honey on the palate. The delicious apricots, peaches, and juicy ripe tangerines are accompanied by spicy hints that go well with the typical litchi fruits on both the nose and palate leading into a medium finish tasting of honey and citrus.

Icewine

Hafner, Gruner Veltliner, Eiswein, Burgenland, Neusiedlersee, Austria, 2002: Made from the most common grape planted in Austria, this wine is a magnificent example of a true Eiswein and a delicious treat. Until the 1980’s Gruner Veltliner wines were mass-made commercial wines sold by the bucket in Vienna’s mass-market food and wine joints. Starting in the 1980’s Gruner Veltliner wine underwent a revolution resulting from better care of the vineyards and more modern winemaking methods yielding wines that often attain excellence. Located not far from Vienna on the shores of Lake Neusiderle, Hafner produces a number of kosher wines some excellent, some merely good with this wine falling squarely in the excellent category. Made entirely from Gruner Veltliner grapes in the traditional Eiswein manner allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine. A very sweet wine blessed with ample acidity to keep the sugars in check. On both the nose and palate, dried summer fruits go nicely with typical spiciness. Very enjoyable right now, this wine will cellar for another four years or so.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heightswine, 2007: I love this wine which has been an annual and consistent hit of the Golan Heights Winery since the first year it was produced. A rich and satisfying dessert wine made from Gewürztraminer grapes producing aromas and flavors of honey, apricots and other fresh summer fruits tinged with pleasant and not overwhelming spices, with a long caressing and slightly creamy finish. Well worth trying. The name “Heightswine” is a play on its origin (the Golan Heights) and production method (creating Icewine); as the winery utilized cryoextraction to manually freeze the grapes in the winery as opposed to the natural occurrence of such freezing in colder climates.

Botrytis

Langer, Tokaj, Aszu, 5 Puttonyos, 1998: When compared to other Botrytis wines, one can easily discern a different style. Currently in its prime, this wine is drinking beautifully with dried apricots, citrus peel, ripe honeydew and honeysuckle combining with cloves and other spices. Less elegant a wine than the Yarden noted below, but with a long and lingering honey finish that makes this one a wine to remember.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Noble Semillon, 2004: Yarden’s top dessert wine is a full bodied powerhouse loaded with the deep honey flavors typical of Botrytis with a slightly spicy background to keep things interesting. As opposed to the other Botrytis wines listed which contracted the fungus naturally on the vine; this wine was manually infected in a controlled environment at the winery. Typical flavors of honeysuckle along with aromas and flavors on citrus, peach, melon and even some pineapple combine to make this wine a deeply satisfying experience from start through the long, lingering finish.

Chateau Guiraud, Sauternes 1er Cru, 2001: One of the best kosher Sauternes available and in my opinion, one of the best kosher dessert wines out there period! This dark, honey colored wine is loaded with aromas and flavors of peaches, apricot, apples, limes, clementines all with a Botrytis honeyed background and a tingling spiciness. Relatively thick on the tongue but in no way flabby and with a long lingering finish, this is a treat to be savored as every sip will make you jump for joy as layer after layer of flavor presents itself. At its prime now, this wine should cellar nicely for another ten years at least. For some reason, the 1999 vintage is easier found and is almost as good.

Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997: I had the pleasure of tasting this wine recently and am sadly down to my last bottle. In addition to the more famous Sauternes and Barsac dessert wines, wines from the Bonnezeaux region also produce magnificent Botrytis wines. This sensuous wine from the Layon Valley is more intensely sweet than typical Sauternes like the Guiraud above, but contains plenty of bracing acidity that reins in the abundant sweetness. Wonderful notes of nectarines, pineapple, white peaches, vanilla and honey along with hints of licorice. An awesome match to some of my favorite all time foods – Foie Gras, fruit tarts, salty cheeses or Canard à l’Orange.

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