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Dessert Wine, You So Fine

Wine is great for any time of day; morning, noon, night. You name it, there is a wine that perfectly matches the time. Quite honestly, I could make wine a full meal easily. Champagne/sparkling for an appetizer, sauvignon blanc for a first course, pinot noir/sangiovese for a second course, Malbec/syrah for a third course, then port for dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

The one thing I get asked all the time is what deciphers a dessert wine from just a sweeter wine and what is the difference in dessert wines, anyways?


We will focus on the difference between ice wine and late harvest wine today since there are hundreds of styles of dessert wine around the world.

Ice Wine

Ice wine (or Eiswein in German) is one of the hardest wines to produce. Ice wines wait until the first freeze of the year (typically 1-2 months after harvest). Frozen on the vine, they are picked at around 20 degrees and pressed while still frozen. Most of the vineyard workers pick in the dark of night while the temperatures are the coldest to ensure the grapes are frozen.

The grapes will typically be twice as sweet as Coca Cola and take 3-6 months to ferment before being bottled.

The story goes: In 1794, winemakers in Franken, Germany were forced to create wines with the frozen grapes available for harvest that year. The result was extremely sweet but extremely delicious wines. They became so popular, the eiswine technique was adopted.

The process for ice wine is tedious. After harvest, the frozen grape marbles are immediately brought to a grape crusher and into a grape press. Imagine trying to crush a marble with a nearly frozen press, the results are many, many broken presses. Only about 10% of the liquid in the grapes are used for ice wine. Imagine caring for these vines for the whole year to only see 10% of the product complete? A lot of work for a small gain! This is why you will see steeper prices for true ice wines. Look for labels from Canada, Germany, and Austria. Some northern US states that border Canada make it as well.

Late Harvest Wine

Late harvest wine is picked roughly the same time as ice wine, 1-2 months after harvest (but in warmer climates, so no snow here!). The grapes are left hanging to become sweeter over time and the sugar content becomes more concentrated as the grape dehydrates. It is basically like pressing raisins and getting the bare minimum juice left to create that syrupy goodness.

Because of the higher residual sugar, there is also a higher alcohol content than most wines, so they are served in 2-3 ounce pours rather than the traditional 5 ounces. Alcohol content ranges from 18-20%. Phew!

One of the most sought after late harvest dessert wines is from Sauternes, France. This particular dessert wine is created from a fog phenomenon. The Sauternes region is located next to a foggy section of the Garonne river. The fog creates a mold on the grapes and infects them with a fungus called “noble rot”. The mold is a less than desirable gray color and are not easy on the eyes. The mold sweetens the grapes and makes a deliciously sweet wine.

Who would have thought that a mold could make one of the world’s most expensive wines? It definitely is a “noble” rot. Har har.


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