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Musings on the Vine
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Musings on the Vine
Musings on the Vine

Dessert Wines - Non-Fortified Wine Production

There are numerous types and styles of non-fortified (dessert) wine. While none of the winemaking processes involves adding grape spirit to halt the fermentation process artificially, all of them require the premature cessation of the fermentation process, leaving behind varying residual sugar levels. The most common cause of fermentation cessation in non-fortified dessert wines is the extraordinary sugar levels of the fermenting grapes, which naturally drives the alcohol level above 15% by volume. In other cases, the fermentation is stopped by lowering the temperature to a point where the fermenting yeast becomes dormant, thereby leaving residual sugar, but much lower alcohol by volume. Another method involves adding back sweet grape must to a fully fermented wine to provide the residual sugar. In all cases, non-fortified dessert wines are wonderful accompaniments to many different after dinner treats.

Dessert Wines

Sauternes

Sauternes is a sweet dessert wine made in the Bordeaux region of France from the appellation of Sauternes, south of Graves. Sauternes owes its popularity and success to a fungus called botrytis cinerea, or noble rot as it is more politely known. During the warm, damp autumn weather in Bordeaux, the noble rot is encouraged to grow on the skin of selected Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes. If the weather remains warm, but becomes dry, the rot flourishes with the beneficial effect of concentrating the sugar through dehydration of the water in the grape. If the weather continues to be damp and turns cooler, the noble rot becomes the dreaded gray or black rot and the crop is ruined. Because of the high risk and because the process is very labor intensive, Sauternes is very expensive.

The process of making Sauternes involves the fermentation of botrytis-affected grapes that have super concentrated sugar levels. The high sugar levels cause the alcohol level to reach 15% to 16%, which naturally stops the fermentation, leaving behind as much as 7% residual sugar. The noble rot is also responsible for the honeyed, sometimes toffee-like flavors that are associated with Sauternes.

There are five communes that produce Sauternes:

  • Sauternes
  • Barsac
  • Bommes
  • Fargues
  • Preignac

Other wines that are made in France that are similar, often botrytis-affected wines (Region; Grape Variety noted):

  • Monbazillac (Bergerac; Semillon)
  • Cadillac (Bordeaux; Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Sainte-Croix-du-Mont (Bordeaux, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Coteaux du Layon (Anjou – Loire; Chenin Blanc)
  • Bonnezeaux (Anjou – Loire; Chenin Blanc)
  • Quarts de Chaume (Anjou – Loire; Chenin Blanc)
  • Vouvray (Sweet) (Loire; Chenin Blanc)

Beerenauslese

The term Beerenauslese in German means “select berries” and refers to the fact that Beerenauslese (BA) wines are made from hand picked grapes that are pressed apart from the remainder of the harvest to create one of the world’s greatest sweet dessert wines. Beerenauslese is third highest of the six ripeness categories for Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) wines, Germany’s highest quality hierarchy for wine.

Grapes used to make BA wines must achieve a ripeness of between 26% and 30% sugar before picking and are frequently botrytis-affected, which only serves to further intensify the sugar levels. Like Sauternes, the fermentation process stops naturally because the extreme ripeness of the grapes elevates alcohol levels to a point where the yeast dies off (15%+) before all of the sugar can be consumed. BA wines are very sweet, but they also possess, like most German wines, high natural acidity, so the wines are always very well balanced. Like Sauternes, BA wines have great aging potential and are usually very expensive and rare.

Eiswein

The term Eiswein in German means “ice wine” and refers to the fact that Eiswein is made from grapes that have been frozen on the vine and pressed before they thaw. The pre-thaw pressing causes the frozen water to be removed from the resultant grape must, which in turn super concentrates the sugar and acids in the juice. Eiswein is the second highest of the six ripeness categories for the Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) wines.

Like BA wines, the grapes must achieve a level of ripeness of between 26% and 30% sugar before being picked. The grapes are not usually botrytis-affected. Once pressed, the juice is then fermented and like BA wines, the elevated sugar levels cause the fermentation to stop prior to consuming all of the sugar. Eiswein is generally lighter in body than BA wines, but still possess great balance and aging potential. Because true Eiswein requires natural freezing on the vine, the wines are very rare and very expensive.

Other regions, such as the Niagara region in Canada and New York produce natural ice wines. Other winemakers, like Bonny Doon Winery in California, flash freeze the grapes artificially to create the same effect as freezing on the vine, which can produce credible, less-expensive versions of domestic ice wine. There is however no replacement for the real product made in Germany.

Trockenbeerenauslese

The term Trockenbeerenauslese in German means “dry select berries” and refers to the fact that the grapes used to make Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) wines are hand picked only after they have stayed long enough on the vine to become almost completely dry. Because these grapes are virtually entirely dry, the sugar and acidity is intensely concentrated, which produces almost nectarous wines of incredible sweetness and complexity. Trockenbeerenauslese is highest of the six ripeness categories for Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) wines.

Grapes used to make TBA wines must achieve ripeness in excess of 35% sugar before picking and are always botrytis-affected, which serves to further intensify the sugar levels and complexity. Unlike Sauternes or other non-fortified dessert wines, the fermentation process is problematic because the extreme ripeness of the grapes elevates sugar levels to a point where the yeast cannot function effectively, which means that TBA wines rarely reach alcohol levels beyond 6% by volume. TBA wines are extraordinarily sweet, but they also possess, like most German wines, high natural acidity, so the wines are always very well balanced. TBA wines have great aging potential and are usually very expensive and rare, even more so than BA and Eiswein.

Champagne Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux

The terms Sec, Demi-sec and Doux in French refer to three (of six) sweetness levels for Champagne (sparkling wine). Sec Champagne is only slightly sweet, Demi-sec is somewhat sweet and Doux is very sweet. Most winemakers only consider Champagne Doux sweet enough to be considered a dessert wine.

The topic of the making of sparkling wine can consume an entire volume, which is not the intent of this review. Suffice it to say that the sweetness level of sparkling wine is a result of an adjustment made after the secondary fermentation. In Champagne, the addition of a dosage or liquer d’expedition after the secondary fermentation determines sweetness. The more sugar concentrated in the dosage the sweeter the resulting wine.

Moscato d’Asti

Moscato d’Asti is a lightly sweet, lightly effervescent wine made from the Moscato or Muscat grape around the town of Asti in Piedmont Italy. Unlike traditional sparkling wine, which derives its sweetness from the addition of a sugar solution at the end of the wine making process, Moscato d’Asti retains sweetness as a result of the fermentation process being artificially stopped.

Moscato d’Asti wine is made by fermenting the juice of Moscato grapes in sealed, pressurized tanks. The sealed tank prevents the natural escape of carbon dioxide gas, which in turn gives the wine its fizz. The juice is allowed to ferment until it reaches approximately 5% to 6% alcohol by volume, at which point the temperature of the tank is lowered enough to cause the yeast to become dormant, which causes the fermentation process to halt. The juice is then closely filtered through a pressurized pump system into another pressurized tank, where the resultant wine is allowed to settle. The filtering removes the dormant yeast so that the fermentation process cannot restart once the wine warms up. The use of an enclosed, pressurized system retains the light effervescence of the wine.

Moscato d’Asti is very light-bodied and delicate, making it an excellent accompaniment to lighter desserts. Moscato d’Asti is not meant for aging and is never very expensive. Styles vary, with some makers retaining more sweetness, while others make a drier version with more sparkle.

Vin Santo

Vin Santo is a wine produced primarily in the Tuscany region of Italy (the home of Chianti and Brunello), but it can be found in other areas of Italy. For Vin Santo production, the grapes are first dried in lofts throughout the winter, which concentrates the grape sugar and creates a raisin-like flavor.

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