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May 7, 2008 06:02 PM

California dessert wine

YH has a sweet tooth and has all but squandered the family fortune on Tokaji from Hungary, Barsac from Bordeaux, trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, Ice Wine from upstate NY and Canada, Vin Santo (and others whose names escape me) from Italy, ond on various fortified goodies from Iberia. He even enjoys "port" and Sauternes knock-offs from Australia.

But I cannot recall drinking or even ordering dessert wine from the state of California.

I cannot explain why this is. It can't be because they aren't good.

So please list some of your favorites.

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  1. a dessert wine that is very "california" and very unique is late harvest zinfandel.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Chicago Mike

      ooh, that sounds good. Which producers are known for this?

      1. re: Yaqo Homo

        Many LH Zins are good, though possibly a bit lighter, than you might expect. There are also several "port-styled" Zins, that are a bit heavier.

        I like two US dessert wines, that are not port-styled: Grgich Hills and Far Niente. Both are a bit pricey, but well worth the $ with the right desserts. Tow more, that might be easier on the pocketbook are the Beringer Nightengale (have not tried the new release, but in the old days, this was an excellent dessert wine) and Modavi's Muscat de'Oro.


        1. re: Yaqo Homo

          Bella makes the best late-harvest Zinfandel I've tasted of ten or so. Last summer I served it with my raspberry "cobbler" with a macaroon cookie/coconut/almond topping, and we all felt the eyes roll back into our heads. I can still picture the evening I served this: all of us seated at the table on the deck, the dessert, the moment we tasted and drank.

          Bella Winery, based in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Region, is known for its Zins.I find some of them too big, but perhaps that is what makes the late-harvest Zin so tantalizing. Powerful, clean fruit flavors.

          My tendency regarding dessert wines is enjoy my international favorites or my favorite local, Napa Valley, ones. So, adding on to Bill Hunt's recs of Sauternes-style California dessert wines:

          The best American late-harvest botrytised wine is probably Dolce, made by Far Niente. It is expensive but easily ranks with the very best of Sauternes. Personal confession: I'm a Dolce lush -- I've had it a hundred times. I've paired it every which ways from sideways, and tasted it comparatively many times against Sauternes, which I adore also. [stopping rhapsody now]

          Another one in this vein, though not as exquisite as the Dolce, is Mondavi's Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc. Topaz is another good one, but harder to find. I like Beringer's Nightingale (named not after the bird but after a former winemaker), but it seems lighter in flavor than the Dolce. Grgich Hills makes Violetta, with pronounced apricot flavors, but I find it a bit syrupy and cloying. Just my palate speaking. Mondavi's Moscato d'Oro is a light semi-sweet wine, not without its merits, but I much prefer the Dolce/Sauternes style of dessert wine.

          There are also a few sparkling Moscato wines made here. These are entirely a different taste experience, of course, and so any pairing would reflect that. My favorite is the Moscato D'Andrea from Robert Pecota. I've also enjoyed the Amabile from Louis Martini. I much prefer these to the Italian sparkling moscato, but again, that is my palate.

          As for port, there are a few very good ones made here in Napa and Sonoma, but, obviously, they lack that ineffable Porto quality. Worth enjoying, but unfortunately, they are made in small quantities -- enough to sell in winery tasting rooms, but not enough to distribute nationally.

          best to you, YH...

          1. re: maria lorraine

            Thanks for pointing out the derivation of the "Nightingale." I had experienced it, back when Myron Nightingale was the wine maker. Ed Sbragia has resurrected the name, but I have not had the opportunity to try the newer iteration of it.

            Just had the Violeta with a sweet polenta genoise filled with lemon mascarpone cream and fresh raspberries, and it was wonderful.

            Have not tried (have not even seen) the Robert Pecota, Moscato D'Andrea, but it sounds like I would enjoy it, as well.

            Thanks for the recs,


            1. re: maria lorraine

              A second for Dolce, though it probably doesn't need anymore endorsement.
              I also really like Honig's Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. It's a bit "lighter" than the Dolce, so I tend to get a bit more floral note with the honey and apricot and vanilla flavors of the Dolce.

            2. re: Yaqo Homo

              Very few, compared to 30 years ago! ;^)

          2. Agree with the late harvest zin rec. I quite like Rosenblum's late harvest zin; I haven't tried Bella's. And Rutherford makes a nice zinfandel port, distilled with zinfandel brandy.

            I recently purchased a late harvest Mouvèdre from Cline (in the Bandol style, I suppose) as a gift for someone. I haven't tried it (yet!), but I think it's received good reviews. Pairs really nicely with dark chocolate.

            One of my favourite Cali dessert wines is Ferrari-Carano's late harvest Eldorado Noir Black Muscat. They pair it with chocolate-covered blueberries in their reserve tasting room. I've had other dessert wines paired with these, but this match is near perfect.

            *FYI - I posted about this last find recently on my blog, in case you're looking for more info. I'm not sure if posting the link is a no-no, but it seems relevant here:

            1. YH,

              There are a number of dessert wine producers in California. Personally there are very few, NON-fortified California dessert wines I've had in my life that I'd buy a second time. I find most to be too low in acidity and out-of-balance.

              Joseph Phelps, Chateau St. Jean, and Freemark Abbey have produced some top-notch LH wines from Riesling over the years. Ridge has made some excellent LH Zins, as well as some amazing dessert wines labeled "Zinfandel Essence" over the years.

              Historically, my all-time favorite has always been Louis Martini's Moscato Amabile. However, since the winery was purchased by Gallo, the way this wine is produced now makes it a pale shadow of its once-great self.

              You've gotten some good specific suggestions, but I generally avoid these types of wines made in California. For MY taste, I can find better wines (often for less money) from elsewhere on the planet.

              Just my 2¢ . . . probably worth far less . . . you may keep the change. ;^)

              1. Raymond Vineyard (in Napa) makes a Late Harvest Chardonnay, called Eloquence, that is absolutely delicious. Their notes say it has "Rich flavors of dried apricots, pears and peaches." At our house we refer to it as 'liquid honey'. It runs around $40 for a 375ml bottle, so it's an indulgence.

                1. "The best American late-harvest botrytised wine is probably Dolce, made by Far Niente..."

                  Uh-oh... Maria, you know I normally agree with you, but...

                  While this may be partially just a personal preference for Riesling over Semillon, I cannot put Dolce in the top two US botrytis wines:

                  Eroica Single Berry Select and Navarro Cluster Select Late Harvest (which at $30/375ml has to be the single best value in dessert wine on the planet), imo, are the two best that the US has to offer. (Of course, the Eroica is morally offensively expensive...)

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: whiner

                    Whiner...nice to see you on the board again...

                    Sure, you can disagree with have such a lovely world palate.

                    Moreover, you've given me a new dessert wine (the Eroica) to try, and I'll again
                    try the Navarro, which I've had a number of times. The first few times I loved it, and thought it an excellent buy, like you. Even so, it never blew up my skirt like the Dolce. I last had the Navarro at the winery about three years ago, and recall being disappointed. I haven't had it since. Perhaps it deserves a another try.

                    Uh oh...Whiner...I just checked where I could find the Eroica near me (Dee Vine Wines in SF) and it's 200 smackers. I see what you mean about it being morally offensive expensive (and I like the ring of that phrase -- think of all the things it applies to!).

                    Maybe instead of the Eroica, I'll head on down to K&L and buy some Sauternes. I usually go international on dessert wines, like Jason, but
                    the Dolce is so near and so dear and there is that skirt-blowing-up thing.

                    Best, M.

                    P.S. I'm so glad I said the best was "probably Dolce."

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Maria, Bill, Navarro regularly does late harvest wines, but only does the cluster select in certain vintages, so it's possible either you have mixed up the two wines, or some years are amazing and some years are just good for the cluster select.

                      The regular stuff is a fine end to a meal, but to borrow a phrase, it doesn't blow up my skirt. The good stuff is still sitting in the cellar, so hopefully the delayed gratification is worth it.

                      1. re: SteveG

                        I have had several Navarro LH wines, and each was done with subtlety and finesse. Each has offered layers of flavors, unlike some of the US dessert wines from the NE.

                        In case I have not mentioned it up-thread (that is how it goes on older thread, old fuds like me keep posting the same recs.!), Jos Phelps does a very nice one, Eisrébe, but it is not commonly available at retail.


                    2. re: whiner

                      I have re-tried the Navarro Cluster Select (and was just there for the new release)
                      and it's a rockin' dessert wine. Everything that I want. Bought a bunch because
                      I like stickies.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        Hope you purchased the cluster select muscat. They rarely have it, and this year they did.