Welcome to Mexico
By Victoria Schmidt
Dessert wines are an entirely different sort of beast. These are loosely categorized under a slightly misleading term that used to describe any sweet wine. There are various methods used to make these wines, as well as numerous grapes, which produce the most desirable concentration of sugars and flavors found in sweet wines.
Naturally sweet wines are those which achieve a natural concentration of residual sugar without abnormally high levels of alcohol. The grapes are most often picked after the regular harvest and designated as “late harvest” grapes. These wines are lighter and less concentrated than other dessert wines, and may also serve well as aperitif wines, alongside cheese or hors d’oeuvres. Examples include late harvest Riesling, which are produced in Germany, Alsace and North America.
A tradition going back to ancient Greece is making sweet wines from grapes that have been air-dried, whether on the vine or indoors on straw mats. These raisin-like grapes gain a great deal of concentration and flavor intensity. They are gently pressed to release what little juice remains in the grapes, then this juice is fermented. Examples include Vin Santo from Tuscany and Amarone and Recioto from Veneto, both in Italy, as well as Vin de Paille wines from Alsace and Jura France.
Botrytis affected sweet wines are made from grapes which have been infected by the botrytis cinerea mold, which causes the grapes to dehydrate and shrivel up. As with air-dried grapes, the botrytized grapes have very concentrated sugars and flavors, giving them the capacity to age and develop additional complexity.
Harvest is painstaking, requiring several passages through the vineyards to pick the grapes, berry by berry, at the optimal moment. Examples include French Sauterns from Bordeaux, Quarts de Chaume from Loire, and Tokaji Aszú from Hungary.
The final category is ice wine. This was first produced in Germany, where it is called “Eiswein.” Originally dating back to the late 18th century, ice wine is produced by leaving the grapes on the vine until they become frozen solid. Conditions must be right, and the grapes must be suitable for ice wine.
Freezing concentrates the sugar and acidity in the grapes. They are carefully picked and then swiftly pressed while still frozen. At 18 degrees Fahrenheit, the water is in crystalline form while the grape juice is still liquid. Only the concentrated juice is pressed out to be fermented. This is a painstaking and labor-intensive process, and the extremely high prices for ice wine reflect this. Nowadays, Canada is making very good “Ice Wines.”