by CHRISTINA KELLY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & any people are turned off by sweet wines, those intense and sugary vintages that the Australians refer to as "stickies" -- apropos since they literally coat your mouth with sweetness and affect all flavors afterward.
But around the holidays, stickies can extend the evening's camaraderie with an exclamation point at the end of a fine meal.
In addition to being a great ending to the perfect holiday meal, ice wines and late harvest wines -- generally sold in half-bottle (375 ml) sizes -- make great holiday gifts for the novice and wine expert alike. Winemakers only produce small amounts of these special treats, usually in very attractive bottles. These wines also age well for many years.
"There is something ceremonial about late harvest and ice wines," says Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. "They come wrapped in these special bottles that you bring out to enjoy with your family and friends at the end of an evening. Then you get to taste this sparkling clear, sweet nectar. And, what makes it more special is that these wines are not made every year, so it is an exceptional treat."
Ice wines are made when grapes freeze on the vine, resulting in overripe, super-concentrated fruit. The grapes are picked frozen, carried to the winery and pressed immediately. Grapes are made up mostly of water, and since only the water will freeze at these low temperatures, the sweet grape nectar can be pressed from the grapes while the frozen water remains trapped in the skins. The viscous, sugar-concentrated juice is then fermented to produce a sweet wine that is more refreshing than cloyingly sweet, due to the high acidity.
Late harvest wines are produced from grapes that are harvested late in the season, as the name implies. At this late stage, the grapes naturally dehydrate, concentrating their flavors as they take on sweet, raisin-like qualities. Thanks to this longer "hang time" on the vine, the grapes shrivel like raisins, and as the water evaporates, the concentrated sugar remains in the grape, making for an intensely sweet and flavorful fruit.
A beneficial fungus called Botrytis cinerea, or "Noble Rot," affects late harvest wines, creating the distinctive character of the great sweet wines of Sauternes (a region in France), Germany and Hungary. In Washington, clusters of grapes may contain only small amounts of Botrytis, or they can be 100 percent affected, giving the grape intense honey flavors and texture.
Covey Run winemaker Kate Michaud helped to produce two dessert wines -- a 2005 Late Harvest Riesling and a 2005 Reserve Semillon ice wine. Michaud took over winemaking duties in July from Kerry Norton, who is now head winemaker at Columbia Winery.
Michaud says the '05 Late Harvest Riesling does not have overwhelming notes of Botrytis flavors, but rather allows the flavors of Riesling to shine through. "We have Botrytis on the grapes but it varies from vineyard to vineyard, so you will have some grapes more affected by Botrytis than others," she says.
Right here in Spokane, Latah Creek Wine Cellars offers Natalie's Nectar, one of the more unusual sweet red wines produced in this country. Winemaker Mike Conway was inspired by Recioto, a sweet Italian red wine he discovered during his travels in Europe. In Italy, the red wine grapes for Recioto are dried and shriveled; here, Conway takes a finished wine (Syrah) and adds unfermented grape juice, then quickly bottles the wine.
"It is a sweet dessert wine without the high alcohol of Port, for example," says Conway. "It is intense in its fruit but doesn't pack the alcohol level -- just a fun wine to make and drink."
At Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bertheau says five wines were produced from the 2006 vintage -- a vintage he calls "the perfect storm" -- which saw a hard freeze (below 14 degrees) with ripe fruit still hanging on the vine.
Selected grapes were left hanging in the winery's Horse Heaven Hills Vineyard to achieve Botrytis last year on Oct. 31, says Bertheau.
"It was 13 degrees, and I looked up in the sky at 4 am and it was as crystal clear as I've ever seen," he says. "We knew it would be a special harvest."
The 2006 vintage is only the fifth year in Chateau Ste. Michelle's 40-year history that provided conditions for ice wine. Offerings include the 2006 Ethos Late Harvest White Riesling, 2006 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc and a 2006 Chenin Blanc Ice Wine. The winery will release an Eroica late harvest Riesling and its single berry select in 2008.
"If people knew how much work and passion it takes to make these wines, they would be amazed," says Bertheau.
Most of these wines are priced between $13 and $45 and are relatively easy to find. For the Canadian ice wines, and the harder-to-find late harvest and more obscure ice wines, expect to pay more. But for that special meal, these wines are worth the price since a little drop goes a long, long way.