Dolce: Different, Delicious, Decadent

Mold has given the world some good things — like penicillin — and some bad things — like spoiled food. Mold is generally a rotten thing in the wine world, with one exceptional example — late harvest wine.

The most famous of these dessert-style wines come from France, Germany and Hungary. But, there is a 20-acre vineyard in Napa where a special type of mold, and some demanding winemaking practices, transform normal sauvignon blanc and semillion grapes into a golden essence called Dolce.

There’s nothing else quite like it in the United States. It’s rare, rich and rather expensive.

I’d serve Dolce after dinner with fine cheese or perfectly ripe fruit. It would also be great with pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving but my favorite foil for dessert wine is foie gras. The texture of the liver and the richness of the wine makes my tongue tingle just thinking about it.

Dolce

Dolce

The sweet wine ($85/tenth)  is made from grapes infected with “noble rot,” which by its scientific name is known as “boytritis cinera“. The disease causes wine grapes to shrivel up like tiny prunes, concentrating the sugars in a viticultural tightrope dance between destruction and delight.

Botrytis is a benign mold that comes along when growing conditions allow it to thrive. Other more destructive molds and pests follow later and can destroy a vineyard quite quickly.

Timing is everything. Pick too late, and the bad molds can ruin the harvest. Pick too early, and the fruit might not ripen properly.

“It (botrytis) thrives within the berry after perforating the skin,” explained winemaker Greg Allen, who has been in charge of Dolce since 2001 vintage.

The entire process is frought with risk, Allen explained. One wrong turn, whether it’s weather-related or an infestation of insects, can ruin everything.

In 1987, the entire crop was lost and no Dolce was produced, but for the last eight years, Allen has triumphed to vinify varying amounts of this wine each year — ranging from a few hundred cases to 3,000 cases.

It’s basically a five-year process from harvest to release. The wine may take an exceptionally long time to ferment — anywhere from two to 10 months. It’s bottled after nearly three years in French oak barrels.

Far Niete Winery

Kenneth Rice for Far Niente Winery

Dolce is an independent offshoot of the Far Niente winery, which has been producing award-winning chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in Oakville since 1979 (See a great piece we made on Far Niente here). The Dolce operation is housed in the same grand winery with the other wines, but everything is kept separate in the cellar and on the books.

The idea for producing a dessert-style wine came up one day when Far Niente management got tired of pouring someone else’s wines after dinner’s featuring Far Niente reds and whites.

But having the idea is one thing. Making this type of wine is something altogether different.

The Dolce block of the John’s Creek vineyard is in the Coombsville area, in the rolling hills on the east side of Napa Valley. Here, fog regularly rolls in without too much wind and the soils are exceptionally well drained.

The process starts in the vineyard, where normally a grower might thin out the leaves on each vine to expose the grapes to more sunshine to improve the ripening process. But with Dolce, it’s reversed.

With late harvest wines, the idea is to protect them from the sun by enhancing the canopy of leaves through different trellising methods. At the time of veraison — when the grapes have grown to full size, but before they begin to ripen — as much as half of the entire crop is removed from the vines.

At Dolce, only one bunch per shoot is left on the plant so that individual bunches of berries will not rub together. By harvest, less than 20 percent of the original volume of grapes is hanging on the vines.

If the grape bunches swing against each other in the wind, there will be bruising and the juice inside the grape could quickly turn to vinegar. If insects, like yellowjackets, swarm through the vines, they can literally suck the life from the berries.

Inopportune rains can ruin everything.

In 1998, with the grapes almost ready for harvest, almost the entire vineyard was covered in plastic sheeting when the forecast predicted an oncoming downpour. That storm dumped 5 inches of rain on the nearly-ready-to-be-picked vines.

Even though winds blew about one-third of the plastic canopy away, this unconventional intervention saved the harvest. The resulting wine — a deeply golden elixir that tastes of rich brioche and caramel — showed exceptionally well in a tasting at the winery earlier this week.

By contrast, the newest vintage — the 2005 — showed much more citrus fruit. There were orange oil tones and a touch of grapefruit spritz in this lighter, golden-hued wine. The 2005 was delicious, and like the 1998, it showed a distinctive and irresistible floral perfume.

By the time harvest rolls around, the botrytis-infected grapes are shriveled up shells of unctous nectar.

A veteran team of harvest workers, using needle-nosed snippers, work through the vineyard, going over and over the vines in the hunt for perfect fruit.

It’s a tedious and tremendously labor-intensive process that takes a week, maybe two in some years, to remove only the most perfect individual grapes.

In a regular harvest, a single worker might pick 400 pounds of fruit an hour. With Dolce, one worker might get only 10 pounds of grapes an hour.

This season, the harvest was completed in one week. As the fragile grapes are moved from the field to the winery, the winemaker processed the fruit in multiple batches, working to get the first step of the magic process under way as soon as possible.

Each batch is treated separately and later blended together in a meticulous process to achieve the right balance of fruit, aroma and taste.

The wines are ready to drink when released, but spending more time in the bottle produces some delicious improvements that seem to mount over time.

The Far Niente winery, which features a serious of spectacular underground caves dug into the hillside property, is open to visitors by appointment only. With a $50 tasting fee (waived with the purchase of any wine) there are no crowds here and a visit becomes an elegant experience not to be missed.

Wine club members get free tastings and also are invited to the winery’s annual open house every February when the Far Niente cabernet sauvignon is released.

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