What is Late-Harvest Wine?

Question from Renee: Hi! I was at a friend’s house for dinner the other day and she served a really sweet wine from a small bottle called Dolce. I don’t usually like sweet wine, but this was delicious! She said it’s a late-harvest wine and I didn’t want to look like an idiot so I didn’t ask what that means. What is it? 

Reply: Hi, Renee. Thanks for writing! You have a very generous friend. That’s an expensive bottle of wine – I love it, too – I think of it as liquid gold…

Your friend was right – Dolce is in a category of wines referred to as late-harvest or botrytized wine. If you’ve ever heard of Sauternes, that was the model. This category also includes late-harvest, sweet German wines such as Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). From Hungary, there’s the famous Tokaj. Ice wine (eiswein) isn’t usually botrytized, but it certainly qualifies as late harvest since the grapes are picked and pressed in a frozen state. 

The term is quite literal. The grapes are harvested much later than normal – so late that they’ve begun to dehydrate and, in fact, begun to rot. Botrytis cinerea is famous in the wine world (the French call it the “noble rot”) for compounding the dehydration which concentrates the sugar, acid and flavors. This is because the rot perforates the grape skins and the watery juice seeps out. Botrytized wines have an unforgettable honeyed character, which I’m sure you noticed in the Dolce.   

If harvesting rotten or frozen grapes sounds a little nuts, quite right! It’s a very high-risk proposition because while you’re waiting for botrytis to develop or for enough freezing weather to come along, birds and other animals will eat the grapes or they just plain, outright rot! Noble rot is only noble under the right conditions. It can just as easily become slimey, gray rot – ewww…

The first record we have of late harvest wine being produced goes back to the 1600s in Hungary. As the story goes, a wine-making priest delayed the harvest because of an impending attack by the Turks. By the time they were able to get back into the vineyard the grapes they were thoroughly infected with botrytis. It’s hard to imagine the kind of desperation that would bring a person to try to create something palatable from the disgusting brown, fuzzy clusters, but there you have it – the first Tokaj (Tokay) Aszu – the delectable dessert wine that’s synonymous with Hungary. This was in 1650. The first record of botrytised wine in Germany was the mid 1700s. And, in Sauternes, the mid 1800s.

Ice wine is a fairly modern German invention that goes back to the 1960s and the harvest may be in November, December or even after the new year. The idea is to pick the very sweet, frozen grapes and press them while frozen so that the watery juice is tossed out as ice crystals. The winemaker is left with a very small amount of juice that’s remarkably high in sugar, acid and flavor.

As you probably noticed, a little goes a long way and, usually, a half bottle is enough to serve four very nicely after a nice meal. If you want to explore more wines like this, they aren’t always so expensive. With the help of a knowledgeable retailer, you can get a nice bottle of Sauternes or Barsac (a village within the Sauternes appellation) for much less. And, you can explore new-world versions, too, which usually have proprietary names such as Dolce. The back label will probably tell you that it’s a late-harvest wine. Again, a good retailer is of invaluable help and is happy to answer your questions. Cheers! 

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