To make Late Harvest wines, the grapes need to follow the -paraphrased- advice from legendary rockstar Axl Rose and just take some time alone on their own, but instead of chilling in the cold November rain, they will benefit from a less damp weather which allows them to dry on the vine for several weeks after the fruits for still wines have been picked.
Said that, winemakers need more than just a little patience, and Guns and Roses puns aside, this dehydration process is what gives Late Harvest wines their characteristic concentration. As the fruit looses water, the sugars and flavours intensify within, resulting in bottles that are the power ballads of the wine world: sweet yet intense; luscious but with the structure and acidity that only a high quality grape (or an epic electric guitar solo) can bring to balance their syrupy content.
Some of the finest Late Harvest wines come from grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, a fungus with an appetite for destruction that is referred to as Grey Rot when undesirable and as Noble Rot when wanted. This humidity-loving creature makes grapes decay and shrivel, and while the result is not pretty in appearance, the aromas that it confers under the right conditions are sublime.
Thin-skinned grapes such as Riesling and Semillon are particularly prone to be affected by the micro-organism and therefore they’re frequent choices for this style of wine.
The technique called Passerillage is also used by makers of vendanges tardives, as Late Harvest are also know. This consists in making several runs through the vineyard in order to collect the dried grapes at the best time possible. In regions where Noble Rot is not present, it is still possible to produce fine Late Harvest wines using this method, although they’d be less complex.
Wines such as Sauternes and Barsac (Bordeaux, France), Tokaji Aszu (Hungary) and Spätlese Riesling (Germany) benefit from Noble Rot.
Some of the finest Late Harvest wines come from these regions and a share trait makes them ideal for the style: Their proximity to rivers (Garone in Bordeaux, Tisza and Bodrog in Tokaj, and Mosel in Germany) and their sunny weather means that evaporation will guarantee the humidity necessary for the fungus to appear and thrive, but the sunshine will keep the grapes dry enough to prevent them from succumbing to the rot’s negative features.
The Up and Coming
What the New World lacks in mythical Late Harvest regions it makes up in freedom to experiment and to bring innovation to the style. In Australia, one of the best regions for Late Harvest wines is Riverina, in Griffith, New South Wales. Both Semillon and Riesling are popular choices to work with.
In New Zealand, a wide array of grapes arrive fashionably late to the cellar: Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, often planted on the Marlborough region make up for a diverse palette of sweetness.
Gewurz is also a preferred choice in Chile, as well as Moscatel. Valleys such as Colchagua, Curicó, Maule and Maipo are good places to take into consideration. In South Africa, Chening Blanc would star most Late Harvest, often showing at its best when planted in Stellenbosch.
Argentina is home to a very unusual type of Late Harvest: made from Malbec (which is a thin-skinned grape, but it’s red), fine examples of this version can be found in Luján de Cuyo (Mendoza), where the Mendoza River helps creates the ideal conditions for Noble Rot to work its magic.
On Serving Late Harvest Wines
Indulge in a glass of Late Harvest properly by serving it well chilled, around 8 degrees would be ideal. Since the sweetness in food makes wines feel more acidic and less fruity, pairing them with desserts of a similar sweetness level works.
A lighter wine such as a Late Harvest Muscatel with a medium or low alcohol level makes sense with a dessert that has peaches or oranges and which is not overly sweet, while something richer like a Sauternes or a Tokaji can match richer, creamier and more complex dishes.
Lovers of contrast will also find pleasure in pairing these wines with strong cheeses, Stilton and Sauternes is a classic combination for a reason, and also, a lighter Late Harvest could work nicely with a creamy fondue or a nice, nutty matured Cheddar. And if you can’t decide whether to pair them with cheese or with cake, pair them with cheesecake!
Let’s begin with tasting some lovely examples…
13% ABV – Available at Wines Direct – €20.25 (currently on offer at €19.50)
The Cadillac appellation is located within Entre-Deux-Meres region in Bordeaux. Less known than than legendary Sauternes, it offers high quality at very good value. The wine is light gold in colour, with a delicate nose of nectarines and ripe lemon. On the palate, it shows a rich and creamy texture and a medium sweetness and acidity with notes of acacia honey, orange blossom and ripe citrus fruit.
11% ABV – Available at O’Briens – €21.95 (350 ml bottle)
This South African bright gold sweet late harvest evokes candied lemon, ripe pineapple and orange blossom both in nose and palate.
Coming from the prestigious region of Stellenbosch, it’s made from handpicked grapes that benefited from the mellowing effect of noble rot. It has a pleasant acidity and a low alcohol level, which helps to make it feel fresh and lively.
12% ABV – Available at Marks and Spencer – €30.50
60% Furmint, 40% Hárslevulü
Deep gold and a gleaming, syrupy appearance introduces us to this indulgent exemplar of the classic Hungarian sweet wine.
With aromas and flavours of marmalade, passion fruit mousse, creme brûlée and dried mango and a sweetness that makes you shiver in a good way, it’s a beautiful way to end to a meal on its own merit or with an equally luscious dessert.
Available at selected restaurants (Distributed by Classic Drinks) – €40 – €45 (500 ml bottle)
Pale gold and with an elegant combination of floral and stone fruit aromas. It’s a fine example of the subtle and graceful style of modern German late harvest, not overly sweet and with a moderate strength, is on the moderate side of sweet.
On the palate, flavours of peach and apricot combine with honeysuckle.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.