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What’s the difference between late-harvest wine and icewine?

The question

What is late-harvest wine and how does it differ from icewine? They both come in the same small bottles.

The answer

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Both are sweet. The difference is a matter of degree. Or, you might say, a matter of degrees.

Grapes for late-harvest wine are left on the vine for several weeks or in some cases months after the usual harvest. With more time, the berries become riper and thus sweeter. They may also begin to lose water through evaporation, further concentrating the natural fruit sugars. All that sweetness turns out to be literally too much for the yeast in the fermenting vat, which tires out and dies before it can convert all the sugar into alcohol to create a dry wine. Wine producers refer to this leftover sweetness as residual sugar. Presto: a luscious dessert elixir.

Grapes for late-harvest wine may be picked in November (it all depends on the regional weather). Icewine, by contrast, is an extreme version of the late-harvest style, and the grapes are usually picked in December or early January, during the first sustained drop in temperature. Shrivelled berries are harvested and gently pressed while still frozen. The water component (which accounts for roughly four-fifths of the fluid volume) remains trapped inside the skins as ice and gets discarded. The flavourful juice (the other one-fifth of the volume) is still fluid and seeps out into the fermenting vat. That superconcentrated juice goes on to yield icewine, an extremely sweet, syrupy nectar.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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