#188 – September 27, 2011
Before I get into this week’s topic of sweet wines, I wanted to take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and sweet New Year, Shana Tova and best wishes for the coming year; may you, your families and loved ones all be blessed with all that you wish for (including a kosher Château d’Yquem)!
While last week’s newsletter included recommendations for good Moscato wines, this week I wanted to talk about the best of the best – true dessert wines, with levels of complexity and nuance, and plenty of cellaring ability. While there are some bargains listed below, their scarcity and the required effort to produce many of these wines combine to make them a tad more expensive than your traditional red or whites. However, I tend to use the various Jewish Holidays as a mini “Open That Bottle Night” (a once a year practice instituted by the Wall Street Journal’s wine columnists to provide wine collectors with an opportunity to open those special bottles that tend to collect dust in our cellars waiting for that perfect moment to open them), finding the combination of the New Year, traditionally family-centric gatherings and tons of good food, to be a great excuse to crack open those special (i.e. typically expensive) bottles. So dig deep in your cellar for those liquid gold treasures and enjoy!
Notwithstanding the increase over the last few years in the sophistication, range and availability of kosher wines that has given the kosher consumer French Bordeaux, Californian cult Cabernet Sauvignon, true Champagne (and many other-worldly, treats), one great wine seems unable to shake the age-old, pre-conceived notion that kosher wine is bad. Why don’t kosher dessert wines get any respect?
Part of the answer seems to derive from people’s stubborn association of kosher sweet wine with the likes of Manischewitz, Malaga or Bartanura’s infamously destructive blue-bottled Moscato D’Asti; as opposed to those delectably sweet yet sophisticated treats that contain enough acidity and depth to be enjoyed by the most sophisticated wine lover. As an added bonus, these are great wines to introduce non-wine drinkers to a more serious wine as they are both sweet and accessible. While we can only fantasize about a kosher Chateau d’Yquem, there are an increasing number of kosher dessert wines from around the world that are more than worthy of your attention, palate and dollars.
While all grapes contain sugar, the fermentation process undergone by the crushed grape juice as it converts to wine includes a process whereby most of the grape’s natural sugar is converted into alcohol. In order to create a sweet dessert with enough alcohol and acidity to keep the wine from becoming flabby, a wine maker has a number of methods available. All of these occur naturally but the wine maker also has a number of technological mechanics at his disposal to artificially recreate these natural occurrences under pristine conditions to best effect.
The common denominator for all these methods is that they increase the grape’s sugar levels by dehydrating the grape. The three most common methods are (i) leaving the grapes on the vines long past typical harvest (late-harvest wines), (ii) using frozen grapes (Icewine) or (iii) infecting the grapes with a fungus that sucks out the water (botrytis wines). An additional method involves fortifying the wine with additional alcohol during the fermentation process (thus stopping the fermentation of the remaining sugars) which gives us Port, and about which I have written previously in newsletter #124. I have briefly described these three methods below, and in honor of the Chag, provided tasting notes for some of my favorites in each category.
Of the three methodologies mentioned above, the easiest to produce are “late-harvest” wines. As may be inferred from their name, the sweetness in these wines is obtained by harvesting the grapes later than usual (usually early fall). At that point, the sugar level (or brix) is around 24-27% going up to 40% for some very late-harvested wines (the higher the brix, the sweeter the wine). Riesling is one of the most popular grapes used to make late-harvest wine, with good examples being the Teperberg Silver or Hagafen’s multiple late harvest White Riesling wines. Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are two other popular grapes used for this purpose, with many of the Israeli versions utilizing Gewürztraminer as the preferred varietal.
Eiswein, or Icewine, is made from naturally or artificially frozen grapes. As the water in the grapes freezes, the sugars are concentrated in the remaining residue that is then pressed from the frozen grapes. This process results in significantly concentrated natural flavors and residual sugar. Unlike the Sauternes wines described below, grapes used to produce Icewine are typically botrytis-free, resulting in clean and pure fruit flavors with refreshing sweetness and tempering high acidity. Natural ice wines require a very cold freeze, which is sometimes governed by law (e.g. Canada requires -8C° or colder and Germany’s laws stipulate a freezing temperature of at least -7C°), and which must occur after the grapes are ripe. This means that the grapes may hang on the vines for several months following the normal harvest. As with most dessert wines, there is a risk involved (which, in addition to the lowered yield, is a substantial contributor to the higher prices for these wines). If the freeze does not come quickly enough, the grapes may rot and the crop will be lost. If the freeze is too severe, no juice can be extracted. As a result, natural harvests for ice wine are relatively rare (and very expensive). While in Austria, Germany and Canada, by law the freeze must occur naturally to be deemed ice wine, in many other countries (including Israel) cryoextraction (mechanical freezing) is used to simulate the effect of a freeze which allows the grapes to hang for far less extended periods. This is how Yarden’s Heightswine is made.
One of the most famous types of dessert wines is Sauternes which are grown in the Sauternes district of Graves in southern Bordeaux and primarily produced from the Sémillon grape. The most famous of these wines is Chateau d’Yquem (pronounced d’ee kem) which is the only wine Sauternes to receive the elite Premier Cru Supérieur classification and one of whose wines holds the current record for the most expensive single-bottle of white wine ever sold (a 1811 Château d’Yquem at $117,000). The most famous aspect of these wines is that they are infected with Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus also known as the “Noble Rot”. In addition to draining the water from the grape, the fungus adds a distinct character to the wine, resulting in flavors of honey, heather and sunshine. These wines are very labor intensive as the grapes are hand-picked, sometimes over a long period, in order to ensure that only infected grapes are selected and, as a result, yields are exceedingly low resulting in very expensive wines (d’Yquem wines from certain vintages can go for up to $10,000 a bottle). Part of d’Yquem’s greatness is its extreme longevity, as bottles from 1893 are supposedly drinking well and as they age, these wines grow deeper, darker and more mature. As a result, among kosher wines, Sauternes is one of your best bets for long-term cellaring (together with Yarden’s Katzrin wines). In Israel, botrytis is found only sporadically and was only used naturally once – in the near mythical Yarden Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc of 1988. I had the opportunity to taste this magnificent wine once, a number of years ago, and could never locate a bottle for sale (one was offered at the kosher wine auction last week with a ridiculous reserve price). Yarden’s Noble Semillon (tasting note below) is made by infecting the grapes with the botrytis fungus in a controlled indoor building within the winery. Many other wineries use small amounts of botrytis infected grapes in their late-harvest wines. In addition to those from Sauternes, some other known botrytis wines include those from Barsac or the Aszú wines of Tokaj Hungary. Sauternes is a founding member of the perfect food-pairing club, matching so well with foie gras that one can’t help but wonder why we bother eating anything else at all.
Below are a number of highly recommended wines made using the three various methodologies described above, all of which are classic choices to grace your Rosh Hashanah table. Given with their intense sweetness, typically higher price and appropriateness as a stand-alone dessert, these wines are regularly sold in half (i.e. 375 ml) or slightly larger (i.e. 500 ml) sized bottles.
Carmel, Single Vineyard – Sha’al, Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, 2009: One of the best valued Israeli dessert wines available (although this title is in contention with the recent price increase). An extremely well made wine with great balance between the sweetness and bracing acidity and a marked improvement over the already amazing 2006 vintage. While not a botrytis wine per se, approximately 20% of the grapes used in the wine were infected with the noble rot, giving it hints of heather and honey on the palate. Very concentrated with upfront sweetness, this one’s not afraid to come out swinging. You will find tingling spiciness and varietally typical litchi fruits on the nose and palate along with apricots, peaches and honeysuckle, with hints of honey and citrus on the lingering finish. A definite keeper that will cellar nicely for 8-10 years.
Binyamina, Reserve, Gewurztraminer, Late Harvest Cluster Select, 2009: I first tasted the 2008 vintage of this wine while visiting Israel and loved it! I had the opportunity to taste the 2009 vintage at a recent tasting back in November held by the Israeli Economic Mission and was wowed by how different it was from the 2008 and by how much I liked it. Like Carmel’s Sha’al dessert wine, some (approximately 20%) of the grapes were infected with botrytis to great effect. A rich, ripe and luscious wine with plenty of apricots and dried fruit, some lychees, heather and honey all tempered by good acidity that kept the richness in check and brighten up the palate substantially. I haven’t yet seen it on sale in NYC, but will definitely load up on it when it appears – a highly recommended dessert wine and great alternative to the delicious Sha’al.
Hagafen, Prix Reserve, White Riesling, Rancho Wieruzowski, 2008: As with Hagafen’s late harvest Chardonnay reviewed previously, this wine retained some traditional varietal traits on its journey to sweetness. Plenty of tropical fruits including mango, apricots, limes and papaya, accompanied by slightly pungent notes and some typical petrol notes. With the traditional Riesling oily mouth-feel and loads of sugar, all on a solid acidic backbone with hints of minerals in the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the grapes were infected with some of the botrytis fungus, it was apparently not in sufficient quantities for them to fully impart their typical “funkiness”, as the wine shows little to none of the heather, spice and musk traditional to botrytis wines (the lack of which doesn’t diminish the pleasure this wine provides).
Herzog, Chenin Blanc, Late Harvest, Clarksburg, 2009: Herzog makes two well-priced and readily available dessert wines. While I prefer the Sauternes described below or the Israeli late-harvest wines, it’s purely a matter of personal preferences as this wine is delicious and well-worthy of your holiday desserts. A full bodied, deep rich wine, it is reminiscent of honey, making it the perfect Rosh Hashanah dessert wine. While the sweetness in this wine is pronounced, rich and warm, there is plenty of balancing acidity to keep the sugar in check. Dried apricots, mango and crème brûlée on the nose and palate, accompanied by almonds, red candied fruits and more honey on the mid-palate culminate in a long, lingering and viscous finish. With plenty of sweetness and less than 10% alcohol, this wine is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Perfect with fresh fruits or as a dessert on its own. While this wine will keep for years, I don’t anticipate that it will improve much beyond where it currently is, making cellaring a moot point.
Herzog, White Riesling, Late Harvest, Monterey County, 2009: Herzog’s other dessert wine, this one partially comprised of botrytis infected grapes giving it some of that delightful musky funk and heather, typical to the fungus. Less heavy on the palate than the Chenin Blanc, but with plenty of sugary goodness and balancing acidity to make this wine a delight and perfect holiday treat. Notes of honeysuckle, pineapple, Meyer lemons, dried summer fruit and heather lead into a long lingering finish. As with most well made dessert wines, this will cellar nicely for at least another seven years or so.
Hagafen, Late Harvest, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008: As with Hagafen’s other late-harvest attempt previously reviewed (the Rancho Wieruzowski White Riesling in newsletter #140), a marvelous specimen of late-harvested goodness and probably one of the best ones I have tasted (although I love the Binyamina). As with every successful dessert wine, the rich honeyed sweetness is perfectly balanced by gobs of balancing acidity that livens up the palate and keeps things interesting. Apricots, peaches, limes and grapefruit combine for a delightful nose, most of which continues on the palate joined by hints of honey and nuts. The relative blandness of the Sauvignon Blanc grape allows the richness to shine through in a wine with unexpected complexity and elegance.
Hafner, Grüner Veltliner, Eiswein, 2002: While pretty tough to find, this is a delightful wine and one of the only true kosher icewines on the market. 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, Grüner Veltliner wines were commercial wines sold by the bucket in Vienna’s mass-market food and wine joints. Despite their perceived lack of complexity, these wines paired brilliantly with all manner of dishes. Starting in the 1980’s, Grüner Veltliner wine underwent a revolution resulting from better care of the vineyards and using more modern winemaking methods, and started yielding wines that often attained excellence. Located not far from Vienna on the shores of Lake Neusiderle, Hafner produces a number of kosher wines, some excellent and some merely good. This wine falls squarely in the excellent category. Made in the traditional Eiswein manner, entirely from Gruner Veltliner grapes that were allowed 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. While properly cellared wines are most likely enjoyable for another 2-3 years, I’d drink any remaining bottles sooner than later as two recently tasted bottles weren’t in the best shape.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heightswine, 2007: I love this wine which has been an annual and consistent hit for the Golan Heights Winery since the first year it was produced. 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. 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.
Château Piada, Sauternes, 2006: 2001 was a brilliant year for Sauternes, and for many years, the 2001 vintage of this wine was my go-to “special” dessert wine (until I was introduced to the fabulous (with a price tag to match) Chateau Guiraud listed below) and I was happy to lay my hands on a bottle of the 2006 vintage which is nearly as good. A deliciously sweet wine that caresses you at every turn. On both the nose and palate you get long lingering notes of dried apricots, sugared almonds, citrus and a slight hint of white chocolate all balanced by great structure and bracing acidity. An extremely long finish with the typical botrytised, honeyed toasted white bread flavor. Drinking amazingly well now, it should continue to cellar nicely for an additional 8-10 years.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Botrytis (Noble Semillon), 2005: Yarden’s top dessert wine is full bodied and layered, loaded with the deep honey flavors typical of botrytis, a spicy background to keep things interesting and packed with bracing acidity that keeps the abundant sweetness from overwhelming the palate. Good botrytis funk together with heather, honeysuckle, orange peel, lemon and subtle tropical fruit combine for a delightfully aromatic and rich wine all leading into a long lingering finish (helpful at a half-bottle size). As opposed to the other botrytis wines listed here which contracted the fungus naturally on the vine, this wine was manually infected in a controlled environment at the winery.
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 a-l-m-o-s-t as good.
Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997: In addition to the dessert wines from the famed Sauternes and Barsac regions, wines from Bonnezeaux can produce magnificent specimens of botrytis wines as well. This sensuous wine from the Layon Valley is more intensely sweet than typical Sauternes like the Guiraud above, but contains plenty of bracing acidity to rein 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 all time favorite foods – foie gras, fruit tarts, salty cheeses or duck à l’Orange. Delicious now, I’d drink any remaining bottles in the next 2-3 years, as it probably doesn’t have much more peak cellaring time left.
Older Notes (as of April 30, 2010)
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.
Langer, Tokaj, Aszú, 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.
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 (resulting from 18% brix) from overpowering the wine and its aromas and flavors. On the nose citrus, apple orchards wet from summer rain and hints of caramel, spices and vanilla which follow through onto a delightful palate of sugar, more apples and limes all with intense hints of heathery Botrytis onto the long finish. The wine is drinking nicely now and should cellar for at least another 4-5 years.
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