When grapes are tinged with frost, things get interesting.
BY ROBERTO VIERNES, MASTER SOMMELIER
THEY ARE CALLED “SWEETIES” BY SOME, “STICKIES” BY OTHERS, and liquid dessert by most. I like to call them labors of love. Dessert wines can be made in a myriad of methods, but there are two that involve nature in its most intimate fashion. By this, I mean that the grapes go through such a metamorphosis that their chemical make-ups are actually altered. Something that endures such a vast alteration is naturally destined to be nothing short of the greatest “sweets” in the world.
The first type of sweet wine is inextricable from its homeland of Sauternes. This blessed plot of earth along the Garonne River in Bordeaux is world famous for its dessert wine production, which lends its name to perhaps the world’s greatest dessert wine. The names of the Chateaux that produce this amazing sweet liqueur of heaven are a who’s who list. The Chateaux were classified in 1855 and they stand the same today. Names such as Rieussec, Suduiraut, Climens and Coutet are leaders among the 11 First Growths, with the hallowed name of Chateau d’Yquem being the singular Superior First Growth. It stands alone, head and shoulders above all other Sauternes—and, in my opinion, above all other sweet wines.
All Sauternes are made using the same grapes, primarily Semillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle as secondary grapes used as the smaller minority within the blends. These grapes alone are not the secret to the appellation. What makes the area so special is the confluence of place and flora. A very special mold named Botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble rot” may seem somewhat off-putting. But Botrytis does magic. This mold, when it affects the ripe grapes on the vine, changes the chemical composition of the grape. It lowers the water content, intensifies the acidity and sugar within, as well as changes the compounds of the skins. When the affected grapes are pressed, what is released is a wondrous liqueur sometimes only a third of the original volume—with high levels of acidity and sugar—that result in a wine that possesses great sweetness as well as a supreme balance and longevity.
Of all the Chateaux in the district, the one with the most ideal position—where the Ciron meets the Garonne—is Chateau d’Yquem. Year after year there are some Chateaux that produce wines of equal sweetness, or maybe thicker viscosity. But there is something about Yquem that is noticeably different and better.
To me, it is harmony and wholeness. Even after tasting several dozen Sauternes in Bordeaux one year, the last wine to be served was Chateau d’Yquem. Its gorgeous yellow-gold luminosity, scented and sweet glacee apricots, custard, cream, pineapples, mango, a touch of chamomile and vanilla lace cast it apart from the rest. The grace and elegance along with waves of flavors that wash over your palate are like a symphony—textured and melodious.
Chateau d’Yquem is rare and dear. The best always comes at a price. But there are plenty of other Sauternes that one can seek without having to save for. Chateau Rieussec is owned by the Rothschild family (of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild). Their Sauternes is second only to one in most years. It has a more vanillin and creamier side than Yquem, with great balance and texture. But a sleeper is Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste, which is located just across the street from Chateau Climens. Here Herve Dubourdieu almost secretly crafts one of Sauternes’ greatest value wines in unfortunately small quantities, but worthy of the search.
Nature also works wonders with grapes in the most marginal of climates where winters are cold and freezing. In areas such as this, sometimes deep into winter when temperatures reach 18 degrees Fahrenheit, there are actually people who go out into the vineyard and pick frozen grapes for the making of “icewine.”
Icewine was first recorded in Germany, but is now synonymous with Canada, where they have some of the most stringent laws pertaining to the varietal in the world.
Here’s the gist: Water freezes at a higher temperature than liquid sugar and acid. It is at that point that the grapes are harvested, by hand, and taken directly to the press. What oozes out is again a scintillatingly sweet must.
Even following the lengthy fermentations, there is a hedonistic amount of sugar in the wine, which can be made from different grapes. Vidal is the most widely used in Canada. Cabernet Franc is used, but its apogee is truly found with Riesling, whose airy lightness combined with the seemingly endless amount of sweetness and flavor in an icewine is simply incomparable.
Top producers include Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs from Canada. German Eisweins are much rarer still, however, they are an unforgettable experience. Two of my favorites include Donnhoff from the Nahe and the nearly unobtainable Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Eisweins. They smell not only of beautiful candies and compote but also are reminiscent of rain-scented river rocks and Earl Grey tisane.
Both of these styles of dessert wines age indefinitely. It is not unusual to find bottles more than 100 years old at auction still fetching amazing prices. They are some of the most complex, most loved wines in the world. Both gifts of nature and true labors of love.