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|| News Item: Posted 2003-03-02

Dolce: It's All in the Molde
By Eric Risberg, Associated Press

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Dolce winemaker Greg Allen walks through the Dolce vineyard in Napa, Calif. looking for botrytis as mist blasts the vines of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The mist helps create a humid environment to spur the growth of the botrytis mold.
OAKVILLE, CA. - There's something rotten in Napa. And it tastes delicious.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes covered with spores of mold cling to vines well after most other grapes have been picked. By late November, they become unsightly and raisin-like, perfect for Dolce.

Pronounced dol'-chay, the golden-colored, late harvest wine has aromas of pineapple, apricot and butterscotch and a rich taste of honey and tropical fruit flavors.

Credit the mold, botrytis cinerea, or more commonly known as +noble+ +rot+. It's a parasitic fungus that, under the right conditions, attacks grapes and concentrates their sugars and complex flavors. Botrytis-ridden grapes produce some of the greatest sweet wines of the world, including Sauternes from France.

Dolce was created in 1985 by Dirk Hampson, director of winemaking and a partner in its sister winery, Far Niente in Oakville, Hampson initially made the wine purely for enjoyment and used the French dessert wine maker Chateau d'Yquem, as his inspiration.

The initial vintage was just a few barrels; seven years later, in 1992, the first commercial vintage was released.

Launched as a separate bonded entity that year, Dolce took its name from the Italian phrase "dolce far niente," or "sweet do nothing." It's the only winery in North America solely devoted to producing a single late-harvest wine, according to Larry Stone, master sommelier at the Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco.

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

A glass of 1998 Dolce dessert wine is shown with its distinctive bottle in the Dolce cave beneath its sister winery, Far Niente, in Oakville, Calif. Dolce is a sweet, late harvest wine, made from botrytised grapes.
Producing wine from +noble+ +rot+ is difficult. Botrytis demands a period of high humidity to grow and spread, followed by drying conditions to concentrate the sugars and flavors. If the mold does not occur, the grapes are unable to be used for any other purpose, and the harvest becomes a complete loss, as happened to Dolce in 1987 and 1988.

"The biggest challenge is just knowing whether you will have a vintage" when one crop in 10 typically fails, said Hampson.

Winemaker Greg Allen felt both distressed and very anxious this past October. He paced the rows of vines as a misting system blanketed the grapes to create humidity. A pond was emptied and a well run dry, to no avail.

Then, in November, a storm brought four to five inches of rain to Napa Valley _ and more anxiety, since the fragile skin of the grapes can easily be damaged, rendering the fruit unusable.

But the fruit survived _ and three days after the storm, botrytis permeated the vineyard, producing what Allen called "the immaculate germination." As if on cue, a hot, dry spell followed just before Thanksgiving to produce the perfect conditions for Dolce grapes.

This year's harvest, which took place the last week of November, will produce about 3,000 cases of Dolce, similar to past vintages. But Allen won't know for about three years whether he'll have another great wine.

The 20-acre Dolce vineyard, located east of Napa in the Coombsville area at the foot of the Vaca Mountains, could easily yield four to five tons of Chardonnay grapes per acre. The Dolce grapes, hand-picked over several passes, yield only one ton per acre.

When the grapes arrive at the winery for sorting and pressing, spores of mold fly off the fruit, fogging the air. After pressing, the juice is transferred to 100 percent new French oak barrels for 18 to 23 months of aging, deep in a special cave below the Far Niente winery in Oakville.

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Photo by Eric Risberg/Associated Press

After Semillon and Sauvignon grapes have been harvested, they are hand-sorted at the Far Niente winery before being gently pressed into juice in Oakville, Calif.
There are other challenges, too. Swarms of yellow jackets love to attack the skins and devour the sugars inside. Sometimes the wrong molds form, such as penicillin, which renders the grapes unusable. And fickle American palates unaccustomed to dessert wines might balk at the $75 price tag for a 375-ml. bottle, even though premium Sauternes sell for substantially more.

"After Prohibition, sweet wines were associated with cheap and inferior ones," said Hampson. "As a culture, we have some of the great wine drinkers in this country, but we stop drinking wine when the dessert arrives and have coffee. We need to change that."

Dolce is the perfect complement to holiday favorites such as cheese, foie gras, desserts, chocolate, or just by itself, Hampson advised. "Look for something soft and moussy, not hard and crackly."

Stone calls Dolce "the most successful dessert wine made in the U.S." So successful that at Rubicon, it is in high demand and sometimes short supply. "They took a silly idea and have done it well."

(Eric Risberg is a staff photographer based in San Francisco. He regularly writes about fine dining, cigars and adult beverages for the Sports Shooter Newsletter. Eric will conduct a breakout session at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2003.)

Related Links:
Eric Risberg's member page

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