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West Coast Dessert Wines

California makes a tremendous array of dessert wines.  During the years following Prohibition, California vintners sold loads of table wine using European names such as   "Burgundy" and "Sauterne" (sic), so it's not surprising they'd use the names "Sherry" and "Port" for some dessert wines.  Oregon and Washington wineries periodically make late-picked wines or sweet wines from post-harvest frozen grapes.

The climate of California's Central Valley is certainly conducive to making "fortified" products such as Port and Sherry-styled wines.  Perhaps California vintners can come up with original names for these rather than using those of European places. 

Not only does California produce wines in the manner of "fortified" wines, but it also produces some late harvest bottlings.

The pioneering work in making wines similar to those of France's Sauternes region was done by Myron Nightingale at Livermore Valley's "Cresta Blanca Winery" back in the 1950s.  Nightingale's wine, "Premier Semillon," a botrytized Semillon,   caught the interest of some critics, but not of the bean-counters back at the corporate offices.  

Nightingale went on to work at Napa Valley's Beringer winery and continued dabbling with inducing botrytis cinerea in an enclosed, artificial environment.   I remember seeing the racks which were used to set the fruit on (back in the mid-1970s), these having been sold to a Sonoma County winery called "Grand Cru Vineyards."   

Another method of making rich, sweet dessert wine takes place in Austria and Germany.   In those countries, growers might choose to leave some fruit on the vines in hopes of picking these precious grapes when the bunches are frozen.  Needless to say, this is not convenient and it's costly.    

Santa Cruz, California is not seen as a particularly cold locale, but wine wizard Randall Grahm had a variation on Nightingale's theme:  take the fruit from the vineyard and put it in an environment which could be controlled and approximate the desired conditions.  In this case, Mr. Grahm transported bins of Muscat and Gewürztraminer to a commercial freezer.  When it was convenient for him (not at 4 or 5 in the morning, for example), he and his crew took the frozen grapes to the winery for pressing. 
As the water is frozen, the pressed material is a sweet, syrupy mass of incredible intensity.  

These wines were, for a time, called "Eiswein."  The U.S. Government stepped in an said this term was "verboten!" 

Today these are sold as "Vin de Glaciere" (wine of the freezer)!  The Ponzi family now makes a similar wine in Oregon, as does former Bonny Doonster, Andrew Rich.  

In the same vein, winemaker Dick Arrowood produced some exceptional late-picked Rieslings while at Chateau St. Jean back in the late 1970s.  These were originally labeled using the terms Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.   Arrowood, by the way, was not the first to produce late-harvested, sweet Rieslings.   

Wente Brothers, which used to be a more prominent winery in the "old days," made Spätlese and/or  Auslese Rieslings way back in 1969, 1972 and 1973 vintages. 

Sometime in the mid-1970s the label-approving authority of the U.S. Government decided that these German terms were best reserved for bottles coming from Deutschland and prohibited their use on American-made wines. 
Mr. Arrowood, at Chateau St. Jean, then designated his wines as "B-A" and "T-B-A", signifying not "Beerenauslese" or "Trockenbeerenauslese" but "Botrytis Affected" and "Totally botrytis Affected."  Herr Arrowood gets our nod as having hit the bull's-eye.

California also produced some wines made from fruit which was laid out to dry and shrivel, somewhat along the lines of the Italians in the Veneto and Tuscany.  However, these wines were usually made of a modest grape called "Mission."  Montevina Winery in the foothills and Harbor Winery in Sacramento both made wines called "Mission del Sol."  The Stony Hill winery in the Napa Valley produced a dessert wine made of Semillon which had been dried.  I believe this was labeled as "Semillon du Soleil." 
 



As Zinfandel tends to be a variety which does not ripen evenly, it has not been an uncommon occurrence for wineries to produce "Late Harvest Zinfandel."  This is usually the result of someone not paying attention to the ripening process in the vineyard, no room in the fermenters (so we'll have to leave the fruit out there until we can process it) or simply a "stuck fermentation" [where the yeast die before all the sugar has been converted into CO2 and alcohol].  

 
The comparison made by the wineries is that their wine "is similar to a Port" is usually total nonsense.  If they were more knowledgeable about the world of wine, they'd liken their product to an Italian Valpolicella made of dried or raisined grapes.  These are designated as "Amarone" or "Recioto Amarone" wines.   In any event, these odd wines have difficulty in matching most foods, unless you're serving chocolate-covered raisins.

 



Fizzy or bubbly sweet wines are also being produced here in California.  For years the Louis Martini winery made a "Moscato Amabile," a fizzy Muscat made in the style of the wonderful "Moscato d'Asti" wines of Italy's Piemonte region.   It used to be an excellent wine, but the last one we tried tasted as though it was made of poor quality fruit.  The Italians are usually fermented to 5.5% alcohol, while Martini's, today, is more than 10%.  It's also $27 at the winery, while the Italians are typically in the range of $15-$20.
Schramsberg makes a delightful, mildly bubbly "demi-sec" sparkling wine called "Cremant." 

 



Also coming under the "dessert wine" banner are some of the fruit wines made in California.  Though they've tried to change the perception of being solely a "fruit wine" producer, the Bargetto Winery in Santa Cruz still has more success with Raspberry, Pomegranate, Ollalieberry and Mead (honey wine) than with Cabernet and Chardonnay.  Their label is "Chaucer's."  The "Chaucer's" wines are fermented from fresh fruit, not concentrates.  They are not grape wines flavored with fruit (like "pop" wines). 

Bonny Doon has made "fruit infusions."  Raspberry, Strawberry and Blackcurrants being sold as "Framboise," "Fraise" and "Cassis."  These products are macerated or infused into alcohol. Only the Framboise remains a regular part of their line-up.
They are different from the Bargetto's wines and quite good in their own right.

 


Here are a few suggestions:
 

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