Va. dessert wines have improved dramatically

Veritas Vineyards' Emily Pelton, center, pours a sample of Kenmar for Jaclyn Holland, left, and her sister Nicole Holland.
Veritas Vineyards' Emily Pelton, center, pours a sample of Kenmar for Jaclyn Holland, left, and her sister Nicole Holland. (Margaret Thomas for The Washington Post)
By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 1:21 PM

When Emily Pelton tasted the pomace -- the pulpy mass of freshly pressed fruit -- of her dessert wine, she appreciated the sweetness from the extra-ripe, late-picked traminette grapes. But she was troubled by the acidity. The juice was out of balance. It was flabby, lacking structure and power, like a velvet glove without an iron fist.

Then she tasted the water left behind when the frozen grapes were crushed. It was tart. The grapes' natural acidity was about to go, literally, down the drain.

Pelton, the winemaker at Veritas Vineyards in Afton, Va., and a graduate of Virginia Tech's oenology program, was making an ice wine using a method called cryoextraction. That is, the grapes were frozen in the winery after harvesting, rather than harvested while frozen on the vine as is done in colder areas such as Germany and Canada.

She could have corrected the acid imbalance by adding tartaric acid. But Pelton preferred a more natural method. She fermented some traminette wine to dryness, then combined it with the ice wine. The blend added natural acidity as well as alcohol and body.

That was in 2003. In the vintages since, her ice wine, which she dubbed Kenmar, has consistently been one of Virginia's best dessert wines.

"It is important to make sure an ice wine is sweet but bright," Pelton said recently. "Blending in some of the dry wine adds that acidic brightness while retaining the sweet concentration gained from freezing the grapes."

Washington area wines have come a long way in the past decade. Advances in viticulture and winemaking have helped prove that ripe, delicious, dry wines from European vinifera grape varieties can indeed be made here. Yet while we focus on cabernet franc, viognier and the increasingly impressive Bordeaux-style blends, it's easy to lose sight of dessert wines, which have improved as well.

"These are the most under-appreciated wines," says Jim Law, owner and winemaker of Linden Vineyards near Front Royal. "They are amazing. But they demand your attention, and they come at a point in the meal when no one wants to pay attention."

A traditional dessert wine is made by leaving grapes to shrivel on the vine well after most of the crop has been harvested; thus the term "late harvest." The grapes might or might not be affected by botrytis, a beneficial rot that concentrates the juice and gives it a honeyed flavor.

Dessert wines typically are made with white grapes, with vidal, traminette and petit manseng being the most popular locally. (Some wineries have attempted late-harvest viogniers, but those have been less successful.)

Law confided during a recent conversation in his tasting room that he has reduced his production of late-harvest wines in recent vintages "because I don't want to work at selling them." That's a shame, because his dessert wines are terrific.

Law produces two dessert wines, with the 2006 vintage as the current release. His late-harvest vidal ($23 for a half-bottle) has the oxidative style that gives a creme brulee aspect akin to that of Sauternes (though without the richness of the French model). His late-harvest petit manseng ($28 per half-bottle), made to retain freshness by limiting oxygen exposure, dances with citrus and orchard fruit flavors.

Among reds, the occasional late-harvest cabernet franc can be quite good. Some wineries, such as Veritas and Maryland's Elk Run Vineyards, make nice port-style wines by fortifying partially fermented red wines with neutral grape spirits. Chocolate wines, made by blending cocoa extract into inferior wine, are a new fad among local wineries. But those tend to taste like alcoholic ice cream topping and are best reserved for non-wine-drinking relatives during the holidays.

The general rule for pairing sweet wines with food is that the wine should be sweeter. Try them with cheeses, especially blues, and lighter desserts. Or just enjoy them alone, after dessert. Then you can give them the attention they deserve.

McIntyre can be reached at

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