North Star – a great dessert wine

The other day, while doing something else entirely different I was given an intriguing wine to try. The first thing I noticed was how good it looked, the presentation was stylish – from the appearance of the bottle and label I would have sworn it was a Canadian Icewine. On closer examination though I discovered that it came from Nottinghamshire, which is in England‘s Midlands and is not somewhere that I often associate with wine.

2006 Eglantine Vineyard North Star
Eglantine Vineyard
Ash Lane, Costock, Nr Loughborough, Leicestershire LE12 6UX, UK
http://www.eglantinevineyard.co.uk

I have since spoken to Tony Skuriat who makes it and he really is a fascinating man and I intend to visit his vineyard soon. He only makes a tiny amount of North Star as it is made from a selection of his vineyard’s best fruit. It is 100% Madeleine Angevine, which is quite hardy and can ripen well in unlikely places – not for nothing is it one of Müller-Thurgau‘s parents.

North Star is a ‘technical Icewine‘, which means that the grapes are frozen in a freezer rather than on the vine – England just does not get cold enough to freeze grapes on the vine. I know from speaking to producers in Canada and New York that many people consider it gives better and cleaner results if you freeze the grapes after the harvest as it gives greater control of when the grapes are picked and can prevent all sorts of rot problems. Basically whichever way you do it the grape is frozen solid, so when it is pressed the water content stays behind as ice and you get just a tiny amount of intensely sweet juice from which a dessert wine can be made. The residual sugar content of this wine is 174 grams per litre, to put that in perspective most French dry white wines are around 2!

Tony Skuriat in his winery

On tasting it North Star had a wonderful concentration of rich apricot-like fruit with real depth of honeyed and marmalade sweetness, with some barley sugar and even a richer touch of butterscotch. What made the wine sing though was the vibrant acidity that cut through the sweetness, made the wine balanced in the mouth and the finish gloriously long.

It really is a great dessert wine and does not fall into the typical icewine trap of being clean, delicious and one dimensional, this is complex and layered. When I asked Tony about this he explained that he ages it for at least 2 years on the lees. These are the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation and this ageing adds complexity and texture as well as developing the creamy characters which are alien to most icewines.

Rather wonderfully too the wine is made within the designated region of Stilton production, so at last we can truly eat a great British cheese and partner it with a perfect local English wine – who would have thought it?

I was seriously impressed and awarded this great wine 93/100 points.

At £32 per half bottle in the UK it isn’t cheap, but is well worth the money. A little is still available from the vineyard and if you get in quick from The English Wine Pantry in London’s Borough Market.

When is a lot of sugar no sugar?

Or: When is a wine sweet or dry?

Sweetness is an absolute, right? After all a wine is either dry or it is not and the EU regulates that kind of thing – my friend Warren Edwardes outlines the rules here.

However it is true that most new world wines contain more sugar than their European counterparts. This does not make them sweet, just less dry – many a non-European Shiraz will contain anything from around 3-5 grams of residual sugar per litre, while the French equivalent will have less than 1 gram, which makes quite a difference in mouthfeel, richness and fruit character.

Again, this does not make these wines sweet, but it does make them softer and fuller in the mouth. It makes the tannins much less of an issue and ensures that the wine does not interact with your food quite as much as less rich wines, so a good food pairing becomes less important, it can even make the wine soft enough to enjoy without food – so you see a little sugar can be a useful thing.

However, it does seem to cloud the issue for many consumers who are new to wine – they do seem to think that all wine should be like Australian Shiraz.

We are used to non-European producers being very open about their wines, but I have discovered that it is actually often quite hard to get hold of residual sugar levels for new world red wines. Most technical sheets just say that they are ‘dry’, some have ‘Residual Sugar: Nil’, while more than a few just ignore the issue completely.

I had been pondering all this for some time, as the sugar level is important and I have seen for myself the effect that having ‘dry’ wines that contain a fair amount of sugar has. It changes the parameters of wine and makes traditional European styles seem austere and mean to young drinkers and casual drinkers who want a wine without food.

However, I was really surprised by something in America recently, which possibly helps to explain some of this.

In a winery I had just tasted a Viognier, which did not seem to me  to be completely dry. So, I asked the winemaker what the residual sugar was and his reply really startled me, he said ‘effectively zero’.

Now this wine did not taste as though it had virtually no sugar, so I pressed the point and asked what ‘effectively zero’ meant. His reply, after looking it up was that it was ‘0.7’.

I pressed further, as this wine could not possibly have such a minimal residual sugar content. Strangely though it did – if you measure sugar in the American way, it had 0.7% residual sugar – which to the winemaker was as good as zero and therefore close to his idea of a totally dry wine.

Actually though it is nothing like zero, when I tell you that on the European measure 0.7% residual sugar is a whopping 7 grams per litre – which in a low acid wine like Viognier is not dry, let alone anything like zero.

So, perhaps they just speak an entirely different sugar language over there and their Zero, or Nil is our 10? It would explain a lot about the differences in sweetness and why a wine with quite a whack of sugar can be described as having nil residual sugar on a technical sheet..