Sweet wines play multiple roles in wine lovers' lives.
Often, sweeter wines are entry-level sippers for new wine lovers because they usually are easier to enjoy than dry (especially red) wines. After a while, wine tasters "graduate" to dry styles of whites and reds and might even begin to turn their noses down at off-dry wines.
Then a funny thing happens: Sophisticated wine drinkers rediscover dessert wines in the form of late-harvest whites, port-style reds and rare ice wines. Here is a quick primer on each:
-- A late-harvest wine means it was harvested, well, late. "Late" might mean late October or perhaps November.
-- A port-style wine usually is red, and fermentation is stopped prematurely by adding spirits (usually brandy), resulting in a sweet, high-alcohol wine that is as age-worthy as anything on the planet.
-- An ice wine is made when grapes are left in the vineyard until a cold front drops temperatures below 20 degrees, freezing the fruit. The grapes are harvested by hand -- often in the middle of the night -- then squeezed. They can be extremely expensive.
Here are a few Northwest dessert wines worth trying:
Northwest Totem Cellars 2007 Elerding Vineyard late harvest Viognier, Yakima Valley, $28: Each year, Mike Sharadin makes this bottling stand out in the Northwest, but he first attracted attention just by choosing to work with this Rhone variety. Beautiful aromas of apricot, orange sherbet and peach include a drizzle of honey. Apricot and peach make for a mouth-filling and delicious structure. There is syrup and caramel near the finish of this wine, capped by some citrus pith.
Erath Vineyards 2008 Sweet Harvest Gewrztraminer, Willamette Valley, $35: Shafer Vineyard in Forest Grove, Ore., delivered all the fruit for this seductively sweet drink. There is a bit of shyness in the nose before baked apple, yellow grapefruit, lime, minerality, linen and alder smoke arrive. Honeydew melon, more grapefruit, apple butter and Bartlett pear spill out on the tongue. Jasmine, lime, honeysuckle, anise and citrus pith add balance and complexity to the sweet finish.
Silver Lake Winery 2008 Roza Hills Vineyard late harvest Reserve Riesling, Rattlesnake Hills, $19: One wonders if William Ammons is part Canadian because this late-harvest carries a richness typically only found in B.C. ice wine. The nose unmistakably is dessert, topped with apricots, peach, orange and honey. Those components make a delicious delivery to the tongue, joined by honeydew melon, lasting viscosity, ample acidity and lingering pineapple.
Claar Cellars 2008 White Bluffs Vineyard Riesling ice wine, Columbia Valley, $40: A labor of love, estate fruit came in before sunrise and at 12 degrees Fahrenheit. It allowed Bruno Corneaux to press out aromas of lychee, orange oil, honey, almond and hints of botrytis. The viscous drink is reminiscent of apricot syrup under sponge cake with pineapples and tangerine acidity, finished with some Spanish almonds and more honey.
Koenig Vineyards 2008 Riesling ice wine, Snake River Valley, $20: Greg Koenig seems somewhat bashful at how well-received this wine is. Here is an ideal style for those who do not embrace the syrupy structure of many ice wines. His Dec. 21 harvest allowed him to capture the quintessential dessert nose with honeysuckle, apricot, dried mango, pineapple, orange oil and flan. Think of apricot nectar flavors with peach, more honey, baked apple and cinnamon. Late acidity from orange and lime balances the sweetness.
Torii Mor Vineyard & Winery 2006 late bottled vintage Port, Rogue Valley, $50: Syrah produces some tasty port-style wines in the Northwest, and here is another example. It is a wonderful sipper with smooth black cherries, dried plums and milk chocolate capped by toasted walnut. The addition of 150-proof brandy, derived from the winery's own pinot noir, halted fermentation at 12 percent residual sugar.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.