Category Archives: Wine Styles

Harvest 2011: How California became Italy

This year has had it all.  We started with heavy frost on the Central Coast, rain during bloom and spring hail.  The craziness continued with a long temperate summer which was punctuated by few heat spikes (if you can call mid 90s a heat spike out here).  Growers fought Powdery Mildew and numerous invasive insect species all summer including the European Grapevine Moth, Light Brown Apple Moth, and the Oriental Fruitfly.  For those growers who were able to get through the gauntlet of summer, everything was looking perfect until early October when the rain came back and brought with it watered down flavors, muted colors, and botrytis.  As I woke to the sound of frost fans in northern Napa Valley today I felt that we had come full circle. 

 

Today is the last day of harvest for Asti Winery.  We’ve survived although the last three weeks have been crazy and stressful.  It’s also a time of reflection over the wines that are fermenting away from this vintage.  The floral whites are beautiful.  Marked by crisp acid and intense white flower and spice notes, the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have really stood out this harvest.  The Chardonnays that were harvested before the first October rain, while lower in alcohol, are displaying elegant fruit flavors and balanced acids.  The alcohol conversions on whites this year were insanely high.  Sugars that were picked at 23 Brix are topping out in the 13.5% range showing extremely efficient yeast conversion.  Chardonnays picked after the rains look to be less concentrated than the pre-rain picks plus they are showing Botrytized characters that lean towards a bit earthy in most cases.  Luckily most of our lots are pre-rain thanks to the hustle of our vineyard crews and growers. 

 

It was yesterday as we tasted through pressed off Cabernets though when I came to the realization that my tasting notes were not that of a typical California Cabernet.  Aromas of raspberry leaves, black currants, and sous-bois shined through in the best examples with high acid and moderate alcohol on the palate paired with moderately high powdery tannins.  Granted these wines are pre-ML and have not seen oak for the most part but it struck me as very similar to my notes on Cabernet  from Tuscany.  As we’ve been saying all along, this vintage will be vastly different from what has become the norm in California.  There will be some bad wine out there, I’m sure, but I believe that there will also be a new style of California wine to be found this year.  All the proponents that have been wishing for lower alcohol, this is your year!  The reds had the opposite issue from the whites as the conversion rates were very low. Even the higher Brix reds (which were anything over 24 this year) are only showing in the high 13% range.  It’s going to be interesting to see how these wines develop and how each winery dealt with this challenging year.  Most of all I feel sorry for anyone who gets one of this vintage on a blind exam down the road because it’s going to be so different from what is accepted as a typical California style.

 

As for me, I’m looking forward to capturing the spirit of this vintage in my wines this year.  I think it will be fun!

What is a Dessert Wine?

This post was inspired by one of my avid readers (Thanks to Craig!).  My, off the cuff, answer to this question is a dessert wine is one which has enough sweetness to pair well with the final course of a meal, usually dessert, or be served as the dessert.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine also notes that in America this qualification is based on Alcohol content between 14-24 %.  Funny enough this would put a large number of dry red wines in to the dessert wine category as well.  However for the purposes of this post I’m going to stick with the stickies (wine geek term for sweet wines)!  I describe their personality as Sweet and Luscious.

For a little winemaking background, sweetness in a wine is known as Residual Sugar (or RS for short) and is usually quoted in grams per Liter (g/L) or % sugar.  The name for this sweetness is derived from the amount of sugar remaining after primary fermentation (the conversion of sugar by yeast to alcohol and CO2) has completed, hence the Residual part. However that is only one way that sugar can arrive in the finished wine.   Sugar can also be added in the form of grape juice, grape concentrate, or some other non-grape derived sweetening agents, depending on the laws of the country of production.

There are many famous types of dessert wines and I encourage anyone truly interested in wine to try them all to get an idea as to what is available.  Sweet wine does not automatically mean cheap wine or bad wine so throw the pre-conceptions out the door as we move in to the three main styles of dessert wines.

Fortified Sweet Wines

These wines are sweet because the primary fermentation was abruptly stopped by adding a high alcohol dose to the fermentation vessel.  Most yeast does not function well above 14.5% alcohol and this addition kills them instantly.  This leaves the remaining sugar in the fermentation as sweetness in the finished wine.  Port is likely the most well known of the Fortified Sweet Wines and with alcohols around 19% they are very distinctive.  True Port comes from the country of Portugal although there are many good producers of Port-style wines elsewhere in the world.  Other than dessert, Port and Port-style wines pair well with strong cheeses like Roquefort, figs and fig cakes, as well as almonds and Brazil nuts for Tawny styles of ports. Other fortified sweet wines include certain types of Sherries, Madeiras, Rutherglen Muscats, and Vin Doux Naturels.

Botrytized Wines

 

When grapes are attacked by a fungus called Botrytis (Pronounced Bo-try-tus) it can lead to one of two outcomes; a nasty rotten mess or beautiful sweet wines.  The fungus, when headed the more positive of the two ways, dehydrates the grapes while still on the vine leading to a concentration of sugars, acids, and flavors.  Botrytis also gives additional complexity to the wines through flavors such as orange marmalade, mushrooms, and honey.  My favorite Botrytized wines come from Sauternes, France where the three varieties; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle turn into liquid gold with intense aromatics and crisp finishes.  These wines pair well with strong flavored foods such as asparagus, fois gras, truffles, strong cheeses, and dried fruits. Other notable Botrytized wines are Tokaj from Hungary (the oldest of the Botrytized wines), and the Ausleses, Beerenausleses and Trokenbeerenausleses from Germany, the Rheingau region specifically.

Ice Wines

 

These types of wines are produced when the grapes freeze on the vine and are then harvested and pressed while still frozen leaving much of the natural water content at ice in the skins and creating a very pure fruit flavored, almost syrup-like wine, typically bottled in small 375mL bottles.  While Germany pioneered this style, which is called Eiswein, my favorites come from the Niagara region of Canada.  Typically produced from Riesling or Vidal Blanc, these wines are very enjoyable in small amounts and can be easily paired with cheese and dried fruits as well as desserts.  In rare years a Cabernet Franc Ice Wine can be produced and is also worth the search if you’re interested.  Austria also produces Ice Wines from both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, although the latter is harder to find. 

 

Dessert wines are a fun family of wines that are fairly easy to find and usually enjoyed by a wide variety of people even if they are not avid wine drinkers.  Also, there are some really great bargains to be found because dessert wines are not usually as sought after as their less sweet cousins.  However as with all high alcohol or intensely flavored foods or drinks, a little bit of dessert wine goes a long way so be sure and have a few friends to share in the discovery if you are going to open several bottles to compare.  It makes a fun wine tasting night to have some select foods and different sweet wines to discover your own favorite pairings.  To find dessert wines I’ve written tasting notes for, look for wines labeled Sweet and Luscious