Not all desserts require a fork or a spoon. In fact, some of my favorite desserts require only a nice piece of crystal stemware and a desire to indulge in some liquid decadence.
This month we delve into dessert wines and the varied ways that wine makers coax that delicious and complex sweetness out of the humble grape.
Sweet wines get a bad rap. Often that is because inferior fruit is loaded up with refined sugar to create a cloyingly sweet concoction that is both inexpensive to produce and to purchase. Blackberry Merlot. Peach Moscato. “Fruitscato Strawberry” – whatever that might be. These wines have a following, but they have little in common with more artful sweet dessert wines.
Two types of phenomenal dessert wines, tokaji (toe-kay) and ice wine, uniquely utilize nature herself as the primary helper in concentrating sugars in the grapes.
It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union that wine making in Hungary again became known beyond the Iron Curtain. During the communist period, wine production at state-run wineries throughout the USSR focused on quantity, not quality. It wasn’t until privatization returned to the region that the noble tradition of grand wine making returned. However, wine making in the region dates back to the second century of the common era and the expanse of the Roman Empire.
The Tokaj-Hegyalja, or Tokaji Foothills, is an area in northeastern Hungary and one of the country’s seven wine regions. A small part of the region also lies in modern-day Slovakia, a byproduct of Hungary’s role, and subsequent loss, in the First World War. The wines of tokaji were so highly prized prior to this period, that a certain allotment of what were called Imperial Tokay were not sold but specifically reserved for the Habsburgs.
Going further back, legend has it that Hungary’s legendary tokaji wines resulted from a happenstance of war. In the early 17th century, the Turks invaded the area, forcing a late grape harvest. By that point, the grapes had ripened and been exposed to sufficient moisture from the nearby Bodrog and Tisza rivers that noble rot, the Botrytis cinerea mold, had set upon the skins.
While “rot” of any sort might spark nightmares of losing the harvest, instead noble rot serves to dry out the grapes while they were still on the vine and thereby concentrating the sugars. There are several types of tokaji wines, even some dry ones, but it is the presence of noble rot and the concentration of sugars in aszù, or dried, grapes that puts tokaji on the wine map.
Six varieties of grapes are officially approved for wine production in the Tokaji wine region: Furmint, Hárslevelu, Yellow Muscat, Zéta, Kovérszolo, and Kabar. Most of the production of the sweet wines comes from the Furmint grape followed by Hárslevelu. Shielded by the Carpathian Mountains, the soil in the region is primarily volcanic.
I first encountered tokaji as a wine pairing during one of the many fabulous dinners I had at eight-time James Beard Award-nominated chef Cathal Armstrong’s now-closed Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. The wine, like everything that happened at Restaurant Eve, was perfection and I was hooked.
Recently, I had the opportunity to enjoy a 2018 Late Harvest from highly regarded producer Royal Tokaji. Their Late Harvest brings together both overripe and aszù grapes, hand-harvested and after pneumatic pressing, are then fermented in either stainless steel or Hungarian oak barrels for anywhere between three to five weeks. They then spend another four to six months maturing in new or used barrels.
A rich gold in the glass, its slight viscosity clinging to the crystal, it produces distinctive and pristine aromas of citrus and baking spices. On the palate, it exudes tell-tale honey notes of tokaji, ripe nectarines and apricots, and even hints of nutmeg. Served chilled, it was a perfect representation of the region’s pedigree and a perfect end to a meal.
Wines from Tokaji typically arrive at their sweetness through a drying out of the fruit; in ice wine, grapes are left on the vines to ripen and eventually freeze when the weather turns. The process of freezing concentrates the juice of the grape and their fully ripened sweetness.
Given the role of nature in creating ice wine and the need for a season with freezing temperatures, its production is confined to those areas with an appropriate climate. In fact, the grapes must reach -8 C (20 degrees F) or below when the grapes are picked – by hand. An arduous task in such bitter cold temperatures and one that must be done at the exact right time. Too severe a freeze and all is lost. An hour or two late into a thaw and again, all is lost. It’s a precious and hard-earned commodity.
Canada is the leading producer of ice wines followed by Germany (Eiswein in German). Many other regions also produce ice wine in much smaller quantities including parts of the United States and Europe. Ice wines can be made from many varietals including Riesling, Vidal, Cabernet Franc and even Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
While there are indications that wine made from frozen grapes may date to Roman times, the lineage of ice wines is not nearly as clear as other wines. Yet, we know that the Romans enjoyed sweet wines, so it is not far outside the realm of possibility that one way they arrived at these wines was through allowing the grapes to ripen and freeze.
Ice wine production was not really “a thing” until near the end of the 20th century when pioneering Canadian wineries in the Niagara region sought to take advantage of the region’s climate to produce something altogether different.
One of those pioneers is Inniskillin, founded in 1974 with the first vines planted that year – Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay. Initially producing table wines, in 1983, Inniskillin and three other wineries in the region opted to leave all their grapes on the vines and create ice wine. It was a disaster. Inniskillin and another winery lost all their fruit to birds. The two other wineries fared little better, with only minute harvests.
A year later and undeterred, Inniskillin saved the following year’s harvest with protective nets and produced its first ice wine from Vidal grapes. By 1991, Inniskillin was able to boast of having been awarded the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo for its 1989 Vidal ice wine.
Eventually, Inniskillin came under the umbrella of several conglomerates, including Constellation Brands in 2006. The heft of parent companies allowed for a robust marketing and exportation plan to make Inniskillin “the” ice wine in markets across the globe. It worked but it also came with a proven background of creating a stellar product.
The 2015 Inniskillin Ice Wine Cabernet Franc is a stellar example of what the winemaker can produce. Gorgeously light garnet in color, ripe raspberry and strawberry aromas emerge, followed by equally pleasing flavors of both, and a bit of acidity. This is a sweet wine that needs to be served well-chilled.
The 2017 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine was an entirely different yet equally enjoyable experience, showcasing just how diverse the style can be with different varietals. Caramel, maple, butterscotch and honey dominate the palate and it can be served as a perfect ending to a heavy, savory meal.
One of my great wonderments in wine is how nature and human can come together to create something so truly memorable and profoundly delicious. And while all wine making of note represents that union to some extent, ice wine and tokaji are truly special, undoubtedly unique, and when done well, profoundly transformative. Salud!