Wine Column: Late harvest can yield sweet results

04/25/2011 2:21 PM |

Even after a wine journalists’ jaunt to sweet-wine-centric Germany in September, I continue to prefer bone-dry wines, and rarely consume wines with more than half a percent residual sugar. That said, I have reverence for those wines at the sticky end of the taste spectrum that have been made via traditional late harvest (trockenbeerenauslese or TBA) methods, where sugar has been concentrated by noble rot (botrytis cinerea) in individual berries, yielding deeply aromatic, complex honeyed wines.

A recent tasting at Walsse Restaurant in Chelsea of TBA wines from the Austrian specialist Kracher, led by third generation winemaker Gerhard Kracher, was illuminating and broadened my appreciation of these wines.

Gerhard’s grandfather Alois Kracher began his wine business shortly after World War II. With a small, self-sufficient farm in Illmitz, near the Hungarian border, only a half hectare was allocated to vines. Needing to feed his family with the food he grew, he couldn’t afford to concentrate on a single crop. But wine was his goal, and by 1955 he had converted most of his farm to vines. His wines didn’t meet his hopes for quality until the vintage of 1959, but by then he knew he wanted to specialize in sweet wines, and he sought more land in places near the vast Lake Neusiedl, where high humidity, October fog and clearing winds would provoke and then dry out the noble rot.

Understanding the need to create a reputation for sweet Austrian wines, Alois brought tourists to stay in his guest rooms, then went on the road to other German-speaking countries, entering and winning most of the famous wine competitions in the ’70s and ’80s.

He knew that breaking into the market in the English-speaking world would be much harder, so he lured journalists in London to a comparative tasting of Chateau d’Yquem vs. Kracher. They came for the Yquem, but loved the Kracher, thus launching his wines worldwide.

Having grown up in a household where winemakers from other regions visited frequently and shared both wine and wine talk, Alois’ grandson Gerhard now carries on both the Kracher brand and the family’s import company. With 85 different crus, they now make as many as 12 TBA wines.

Before the tasting of TBA wines, Gerhard offered his casual, dry 2008 ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ blend of welsch­riesling, chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris. This was my kind of wine — fresh, clean and not at all sweet.

I also sipped an indigenous dry Austrian red, the Illmita Trocken Zweigelt 2008, a peppery, dynamic wine with a bit of a short finish, but the right acidity to match the region’s charcuterie.

Moving on, I sampled eight different sweet (TBA) Kracher wines. Of these, my favorites were:

Kracher Scheurebe Zwischen den Seen 2007: a hugely expressive, juicy, tangy sweet wine. The printed tasting notes called its aromas “restrained,” but by the time they exited the glass and found my nose, there was nothing restrained about them.

Kracher Traminer Nouvelle Vague 2006 (‘The Beast’): Traminer is called “the Beast” because it’s an extremely challenging grape here. It doesn’t flower well, its skins are tough, it’s hard to ferment but then “ferments like hell.” The resulting wine is worth the effort; it’s hugely textured, with honey-orange and rose oil aromas and an elegant, intriguingly salty aftertaste that’s both savory and persistent.

Kracher Rosenmuskateller Nouvelle Vague 2008: made from rosenmuskateller, a grape that used to be found all over Europe but now only in Alto Adige (brought back to Austria in 2003); the law does not permit producers to label it as TBA, but the Krachers decided it was worth making anyway. It has extreme flowering problems, but whatever fruit the vines bear makes a fiercely complex, rose-driven, tannic but sweet wine, “a whole conversation on the tongue.”

Like those of the Krachers, most of the world’s TBA or late harvest wines are expensive and very limited in quantity, due to the small yield from botrytised fruit and the extra cost of picking through the berries. On Long Island, conditions are rarely as favorable for botrytis (overall, a good thing, since noble rot is often partnered by sour rot). Not every Long Island winery makes late harvest wines, and some concentrate the fruit by freezing it rather than by waiting for botrytis that may never come. That said, there are some exciting wines here in this category. The best (like Jamesport’s 2001 Riesling, Corey Creek’s 2004 Riesling and Wölffer’s 2008 “Diosa” Chardonnay) sell out quickly. They age like red wines and are worth seeking out for a distinctly different taste experience: meditation, not guzzling.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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