Sweet wines 2 – Late Harvest Wines
November 28, 2016
In the last post we looked at how sophisticated and versatile sweet wines can be, combining with different types of food and making for a delicious aperitif or after-dinner drink. Many sweet wines are made with grapes that are much sweeter than normal. In fact, they are so sweet that the fermentation stops naturally before the yeasts have converted all the sugars. There are four main ways of getting such high levels of sugar and today we’re going to look at the one used for late harvest wine.
To make this kind of wine, you leave the grapes hanging on the vine for longer than usual, well past normal ripeness. As time goes by, the grapes start to shrivel or raisinise, losing water, and the juice becomes concentrated, with very high level of sugars and more fructose than regular, normally ripe grapes.
The yeasts that convert the sugar in grape juice or must into alcohol prefer glucose to fructose, so they convert the fructose last. If there is a lot of fructose in the juice, they may not manage to ferment it completely. Also, as there is a high sugar level, some wines can reach an alcohol level (around 14%-15% ABV) where the yeast action stops, even if there is still some sugar left. Whatever the alcohol level, the end result is a wine that is sweet because it still retains some of the grape’s sugar.
A producer needs to have confidence that the weather will stay dry to leave the grapes on the vine once they are ripe, as damp conditions will probably cause the grapes to rot. Late harvest wines are therefore more often made in places with reliably dry autumn weather, including Alsace in France, where they are known as Vendange Tardive, and Chile.
The sugar that remains in the wine is called residual sugar and is measured in grams per litre. For instance, the Chilean Late Harvest wines detailed below have 100 grams per litre of sugar, while Royal Tokaji Eszencia is almost five times as sweet with 468 grams per litre. Looking at the level of residual sugar tells you how sweet the wine will be, although how you perceive the sweetness will also depend on the acidity level.
Chilean Late Harvest wines worth trying.
Casa Silva Late Harvest 2014, Colchagua Valley, 12.5% ABV. (Half bottle retails at CLP$8,000 – $10,500 in Chile, £8.50 at UK stockists, such as Whitmore and White)
This wine is a blend of late-harvested grapes: 56% Sémillon and 44% Gewürztraminer. It has 100 grams of residual sugar per litre.
This is a lovely aromatic wine with notes of honey, white blossom, lychee and passionfruit, candied orange peel, spicy notes of ginger and a touch of caramel. It is full-bodied, fruity and quite lusciously sweet but the high acidity helps balance this. Long finish.
Casas Patronales Lujuria Late Harvest 2013, Maule Valley, 12.5% ABV. (500ml bottle retails at CLP$7,000 – 9,000 in Chile)
75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Riesling. 100 grams of residual sugar per litre.
This is a pale golden colour and the aromas are pure and fruity, featuring notes of stone fruit, like peaches and apricots, citrus fruit, such as pineapple, as well as ripe pears and quince jam. Sweet, with high acidity and lovely concentrated fruit flavours. This wine feels lighter and more refreshing than the Casa Silva wine, though it has the same sugar level, so here the acidity is making it feel different.
When to drink late harvest wine: These wines will pair well with a range of cheeses or sweet pastries.
More about sweet wines: