Sweet sensations

image: stock.xchng

image: stock.xchng

It’s a strange thing about dessert wines: everyone loves them, but not many people drink them.

Whether they are of the fortified kind  Port and Muscadel for example  or the noble late harvest variety, they’re hardly served any more. Everyone admits they are “sumptuous,” “opulent,” “plush” and even “splendid” – they just don’t drink them.

When the ultimate luxury goods guru took control of the world’s most iconic dessert wine estate – the legendary Chateau d’Yquem  he thought it would be an easy matter to exploit its undoubted brand value. Instead, it delivered fabulous prestige, but no dividends. Even at R3 000 per bottle for a current release, Yquem is intrinsically unprofitable.

For a start, dessert wines – and here we are talking about noble late harvest – are a high risk product to make. The grapes only reach the shrivelled and concentrated condition necessary for the production of the best beverage at the very end of summer. As the bunches hang on the vine, eking out the last vestiges of autumn sunlight, they are highly susceptible to adverse weather. It takes only one late summer storm to turn noble rot into grey rot, to transform the desiccating berries into a grey mush. Chateau Rieussec’s Charles Chevalier once described this waiting game as “playing poker with God.”

Then there’s the small matter of the volume of grapes required to produce the wine. Since noble rot shrivels the fruit and dehydrates the berries, it takes roughly four times a normal yield to produce one bottle of wine. Even without the weather risk and the high labour cost of hand-harvesting the super-ripe individual bunches, each bottle should cost four times as much as a regular wine.

But they hardly ever do – because very few people ever really drink them. They like to have a bottle or two in their cellars, they talk about serving them on special occasions only they don’t. Is it fear of the sugar hit, is it anxiety about ending a meal with a dollop of intense grape essence, is it a fear of the calorie police? Who can say – but one of the greatest gifts of the vine, the pure concentration of the essence of the grape, remains one of the best value beverages in the world of wine.

– Wine Wizard




today in print