There’s a reason late harvest botrytised wine is as precious and rare as it is: The task of producing it — never mind producing it well — is considerable, and the yield is often unpredictable.
We live for the challenge. So, we mapped the ideal location to attempt, and then perfect, the craft: A small slice of the famed Napa Valley, and at the foot of the Vaca Mountains. Here, where excellent soils, ideal climate and expert viticulture converge, the astute observer will discover 20 acres of loose and well-drained soil planted with Semillon.
We discovered this plot of land, whose geography serves to shield it from breezes and helps trap the cool air and fog longer than almost anywhere else in the valley, in 1992. Then and now, it seemed preternaturally suited to growing one-of-a-kind late harvest wine, crafted by ancient forces with a serendipitous combination of gravel, volcanic ash, loam, and clay.
The challenges of producing superior late harvest wine are myriad, but we take them on gladly — because we know what awaits us at the end of the process.
As our wine grapes hang on the vine longer than most, something spectacular happens: They become afflicted with botrytis cinerea, or noble rot. This refers to a particular mold that provides the richness, texture and complexity that sets Dolce apart. Once considered a pox on grape crops, farmers in 17th-century Hungary made the happy discovery that the mold served to enchant the grapes — to evaporate the water, concentrate the sugars, and create an inimitable sweetness.
The conditions of our vineyard suit it perfectly for the promotion of noble rot, which we are able to chart through the fruit’s coloration: green, then pink, then finally purple.
Unfortunately, these conditions beget further obstacles. Other, unwelcome types of mold may find their way to portions of our crop, and the naturally sweeter grapes invite pests like yellow jackets to feast before we ever harvest the fruit. Up to 80 percent of our crop may be lost to these and other impediments each season, making our endeavor a risky one.
But what is reward without a little risk? What grapes do get harvested are turned into a fruity, sweet, aromatic wine that will bring pleasure and joy to all who have the privilege of tasting it. Such is the reason vintners have enjoyed the art of late harvest wine for centuries — and the reason we yearly take on the once near-impossible task of producing Dolce in the storied Napa Valley.
Our final challenge before beginning the vinification process is harvesting the fruits after tending them during their extended growing period. While most wine grape yields can be harvested in a matter of days, the peculiar nature of late harvest wine and the perfectionist nature of Dolce’s stewards and winemakers mean harvesting our single Semillon vineyard can last as long as six weeks or more.
As individual grapes mature, over-ripen, and develop botrytis cinerea at different paces, we’re unable to harvest full bunches all at once. Rather, our highly trained crew must take on the delicate task of combing through our vineyard many times over the course of weeks. With each pass through the vineyard, they identify individual berries that have reached the proper condition and maturation for harvesting and pick each one berry by berry, rather than cluster by cluster.
During this process, we harvest just a tiny percentage of our crop each day, discarding the grapes we see as unfit for our prize, saving the ones that aren’t ready for picking just yet, and carefully stowing only the ones that meet our strict standards.
Once the harvest is complete, the real fun begins. Check out our winemaking process to learn how the technical, time-consuming challenges keep mounting until the deceptively sweet and playful wine is finally ready.
When you take your first sip of Dolce, you are met with an olio of sweetness and zest at once typical of classical late harvest wines and altogether novel in the category. This is a unique, refreshing, and rare take on sweet wine that excites the senses and sets the scene for a lovely occasion.
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