For this last Thursday of the summer season, let’s keep the #summerofriesling going strong with a selection from our first vintage, the 1987 Ultra Late Harvest Riesling.
What makes this wine “Ultra Late Harvest” and what takes it beyond what would be viewed as “Late Harvest,” such as the 1999 Late Harvest Müller-Thurgau that we discussed earlier this summer? There’s no legal distinction between the terms (nor is there a legal definition for what constitutes a late harvest wine either), so these terms don’t necessarily reveal much. However, when we look at the process involved in vinifying this particular wine, it’s quite unique and an amalgam of several styles used throughout the world to craft dessert wine.
About 35% of the Riesling grapes in the blend were strictly what we, and nearly every other vineyard, would define as “late harvest,” in that the grapes were some of the last harvested. Leaving grapes on the vine for a little longer at the end of the season allows them to develop additional sugar and flavors, thereby potentially allowing more residual sugar to remain in a wine.
Just over half of the Riesling developed the botrytis fungus on the vine. This “noble rot” partially dries out the grapes and concentrates the flavors and sweetness in the juice; some of the most renowned dessert wines in the world, such as Sauternes, Tokaji, and Trockenbeerenauslese are made in this method. The grapes aren’t pretty to look at when botrytis develops, but the grapes create luscious wines.
Additionally, after the harvest of these botrytized grapes, they were frozen at 20 degrees Fahrenheit and then pressed, further concentrating the sweetness in these grapes (the sugars and flavor compounds in the grapes don’t freeze at that temperature but the water does). This method of producing a wine in the style of an ice wine, called cryoextraction, is used in climates where true ice wine (when the grapes freeze on the vine) can’t be produced, such as the Willamette Valley.
About 15% of the grapes were a selection of dried Riesling grapes that had not developed botrytis but had shriveled on the vine, which also concentrates the sugar by essentially turning the grapes into raisins. This recalls the method used to produce vin de paille, or “straw wine,” where the grapes are allowed to turn to raisins on the vine or, traditionally, on straw mats in the sun. As with the ice wine method, it has the effect of increasing the sweetness of the grape by removing water, but vin de pailles are traditionally made in very warm regions that receive considerable heat (usually not the Willamette Valley either).
Having hyped up this 27-year-old wine enough, let’s get into the profile. The wine is viscous, pouring a very deep yellow color, bordering on orange. Stewed apples, cinnamon, and pears initially jump out on the nose, followed by orange and Meyer lemon and on the palate. A slight hint of a smoky note lingers on the finish along with an acidic zing to bring it all together.
We know wines with high sugar content and high acidity can keep aging for a very long time, and this wine still has a bright future ahead of it.