Tasting sweet dessert wines is tough. They’re extremely rich and over-ripe and can come close to being cloying, though if they’re made correctly dynamite acid keeps them honest and dry from mid-palate back; that point is essential; you want to feel the clean vibrancy as well as the lushness, the unctuousness. The best examples of dessert wines are amazingly complicated, not only directly sensuous but intellectual. Glorious though they can be, they tire the palate and weary the tongue. They are made, after all, for sipping, not drinking.
Nevertheless, I had accumulated a number of dessert wines of widely diverse origins and styles, so I invited enough people to make a group of eight and we sat down on a rainy Sunday afternoon to try them. We tasted the wines blind, the principle order being from youngest to oldest. Since the wines varied so much in mode and manner, I didn’t arrange them in flights, instead, we tasted each individually. For convenience and fun more than anything else, we scored the wines on a 20 point scale — reminder: on this blog and on KoeppelOnWine.com I do not rate wines on a numerical system — which gave us a means of keeping track of our favorites. I include on this list, which goes from highest to lowest rating, the group score followed by my score. With the exception of the Monbazillac (the last wine on this roster), I regard all of these examples mentioned here as successes in varying degrees
Some of the wines that I thought were terrific the group didn’t regard very highly. I have no way of explaining this occurrence.
There are, basically and briefly, three methods of producing dessert wines. The point is that the sugar content of the grapes will be high enough (or to put it another way, so high) that fermentation will stop before all the sugar is converted to alcohol; that’s why sweet wines are sweet.
First, in the classic procedure made famous in Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Barsac regions, the grapes are affected by the botrytis cinerea mold, which shrinks and dries the grapes, concentrating the sugars and raising the sugar level (usually measured by the Brix ripeness scale). Botrytis, the “noble rot,” may contribute a scent and flavor of over-ripeness, a sort of sweet, crystalized earthy-superfruitiness to the wine. The climate of the vineyard has to be perfectly balanced with foggy mornings and warm afternoon humidity in late summer and early fall to produce the rot. Botrytis can be induced in the winery, as is the case with Beringer’s well-known Nightingale dessert wines.
Second, the grapes can be dried on straw mats or wooden boxes or on special racks to concentrate the sugar, a procedure that takes several months, so fermentation may not begin until January or February. This is common practice in northern Italy, for example in the production of Vinsanto.
Third, in the “late harvest” method grapes are allowed to hang on the vines so the grapes dry and shrivel as sugar levels rise, while trying (usually) to avoid the presence of botrytis. This method produces the Vendages Tardives sweet wines of Alsace. Winemakers can, of course, leave grapes on the vine until they actually freeze, producing the specialty called Eiswein or ice wine.
This tasting of white dessert wines included examples of all these methods.
1. Royal Tokaji Red Label 2000, five puttonyos, Hungary. About $32 for a 500 ml bottle. The grapes are furmint, harslevelu and muscat. Imported by Wilson Daniels. Composite score: 18. My score: 17. The wine spends four years in barrels. Bright, brassy gold color; quince, peach and pear, cloves and cinnamon, spiced and macerated peaches, candied melon and lime; quivering acid, scintillating limestone. A puttonyo is the traditional 4.5 gallon wooden tub used to collect grapes in Aszu; the higher the puttonyo level (up to six) the sweeter the wine. A beauty. 2010 to 2015.
2. (Tie with no. 3) Louis Guntrun Silvaner Eiswein 2003, Rheinhessen, Germany. About $53 for a half-bottle. Imported by Broadbent Selections. Composite score: 16.83. My score: 16. Very clean, fresh and lively, quince, pear and lychee, quite floral; sleek, smooth and charming; sweet candied entry but a dry finish that chimes with acid. 2013 to 2018.
3. (Tie with no. 2) Carpineto Farnito Vinsanto del Chianti 1986, Tuscany, Italy. Trebbiano Toscano 60%, malvasia 40%. About $44 to $55 for a 500 ml. bottle. Imported by Opici. Composite score: 16.83. My score: 17. Rich and warm, toasted almonds, orange rind, toffee, bittersweet chocolate, cloves and cinnamon; quite dense and luscious, long spicy finish with a huge hit of acid. Now through 2012 to 2016.
4. Chateau de Fesles 1997, Bonnezeaux, Loire Valley, France. Chenin blanc. About $40 for a half-bottle. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. Composite score: 16.33. My score: 17. Vivid medium amber color; slightly oxidized and sherry-like, toffee, caramel, candied orange rind, touch of roasted lemon; attractive tone and presence. now through 2012 or 2015.
5. Renaissance Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1991, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California. About $ for a full bottle. Composite score: 15.83. My score: 16. I wasn’t as impressed with this wine as when I tried it in October. This example seemed lighter, more delicate, though quite delicious, with hints of dried herbs, spiced pears and apricots, a bit of nectarine, candied lime peel. Good length and a dry, crisp finish. Now though 2011 to 2015.
6. (Tie with no. 7 ) Dolce 2003, Napa Valley, California. Semillon 89%, sauvignon blanc 11%. Made by Far Niente. About $85 for a half-bottle. Composite score: 15.71. My score: 19 (my highest score of the tasting). This is a fabulous wine, the nectar of the gods, the nectar of the goddesses, the nectar of the nymphs, the nectar of the nymphets. (I dunno what happened to my fellow tasters on this wine, but I like them anyway.) Golden yellow; deep, rich and spicy, fruit not only ripe but macerated and roasted, as in peaches, pears, quince and apricot with touch of mango; roasted honey; intense and powerful, like drinking liquid gold plate but never obvious or ponderous. Best from 2009 through 2015 or ’18.
7. (Tie with no. 6) Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine Gold 2005, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $85 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Composite score: 15.71. My score: 18. Incredibly deep and spicy and layered, so thick and dense, nectarine over peach over apricot and lychee, all super-ripe, over-the-top, macerated and roasted, yet clean, electrified by acid. Try 2008 or ’09 through 2015 or ’18.
8. Beringer Nightingale Private Reserve 2001, Napa Valley. Semillon 65%, sauvignon blanc 35%. About $40 for a half-bottle. Composite score: 15.5. My score: 18. Myron Nightingale (1915-1988) pioneered the used of induced botrytis for making Sauternes-style dessert wines in California. Medium brassy-gold; incredibly rich, deep and spicy, honeysuckle and jasmine, super-ripe peach, apricot and mango, roasted and smoky, a foundation of limestone and vivid acid, almost daringly spicy. Now to 2013 to ’15.
9. (Tie with no. 10) Schmitt Sohne Eiswein 2004, Rheinhessen, Germany. Made from scheurebe grapes. About $20 for a 500 ml. bottle (the bargain of this tasting). Imported by Schmitte Sohne Inc. Composite score: 15.33. My score: 14. No great depth or presence but very attractive, authentic over-ripe botryised aromas, rich and spicy, dense and moderately lush.
10. (Tie with no. 9) Sonnenmulde Samling Eiswein 2003, Burgenland, Austria. Samling is the local name for scheurebe in Burgenland. About $33 for a half-bottle. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates. Composite score: 15.33. My score: 15. Not particularly complicated but a lovely dessert wine, well-balanced and structured, slightly floral, very spicy peach and apricot, good length.
11. Jackson-Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Vidal Ice Wine 2005, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $20 for a quarter-bottle. Imported by R.H. Phillips, Inc. Group score: 15.28. My score: 15. Very attractive, mango and orange rind, peach and nectarine, touch of honeysuckle, sweet entry balanced by keen acidity.
12. Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $75 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Group score: 15.14. My score: 16. Light, delicate, lively, subtly woven, peach and apricot, lime and lime peel, touch of lychee and orange blossom, practically shimmers in the glass.
13. Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $65 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Group score: 15. My score: 18. Light gold color, fresh, clean and delicate but so much substance, tone and structure, crystalline acidity like a tuning fork, multiple layers of super-ripe stone fruit, citrus peel, flowers, honey and limestone. Fabulous. Best from 2008 through 2012 to ’15.
14. Jorge Ordonez & Co. Seleccion Especial Moscatel 2005, Malaga, Spain. About $19 for a half-bottle (another bargain). Imported by Star Distributors, Memphis, Tenn. Group score: 14.7. My score: 14. No profound depth here but absolutely lovely; orange rind, orange and almond blossom, white peach, lime peel, lychee and rose petal, very spicy with heaps of limestone. Now through 2010 or ’11.
15. Beringer Nightingale Private Reserve 2002, Napa Valley. Semillon 65%, sauvignon blanc 35%. About $40 for a half-bottle. Group score: 14.42. My score: 17. What was wrong with the group? So many layers, details and nuances, deep, rich and very spicy, creme brulee with honey-peach whipped cream, jasmine and honeysuckle, and so much energy and nervosity. Now through 2012 to ’15.
16. Chateau Villefranche 2005, Sauternes, Bordeaux. Semillon 85%, sauvignon blanc 10%, muscadelle 5%. About $33 for a half-bottle. William Harrison Imports. Group score: 13.7. My score: 15. Clean, fresh and delicate, Meyer lemon, very ripe pineapple and grapefruit, peach and apricot, stone fruit, tingling acid, a wash of limestone and shale in the dry finish. Very charming. Now through 2012 to ’15.
17. Bonny Doon Le Val des Anges Roussanne 2006, Beeswax Vineyard, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. About $30 for a half-bottle. Group score: 13.14. My score: 13. This “flight of angels” emerges from Bonny Doon’s biodynamic vineyard in southern Monterey county. Elegant, delicate, composed of finely poised layers of jasmine, spiced and honeyed white peaches, roasted grapefruit, lime peel and limestone; gripping acid keeps the finish dry. Now through 2011 or ’12.
18. Chateau Monbazillac 2000, Monbazillac. Semillon 80%, sauvignon blanc 10%, muscadelle 10%. About $22 for a half-bottle. No importer listed. Group score: 12.57. My score: 9. Unbalanced, tired, earthy and a little dirty.