by Laura Ness
Ask Mick Schroeter how the Late Harvest Chardonnay project came about at Sonoma-Cutrer, and the well-versed Aussie, who began his career as a red winemaker in the Barossa Valley with the iconic Penfolds brand, says simply, “Chardonnay and Pinot Noir just don’t cut it with dessert. We were doing all these wine dinners, and we’d get to the dessert course, and nothing would be quite right. So, we decided it was time to do a Late Harvest.”
And they’re glad they did, because this stuff is like liquid gold. “You cannot imagine how something so utterly disgusting looking – shriveled and rotted and covered with fuzz – could produce a wine so elegant and beautiful. It’s really a classic case of the ugly duckling turning into a swan,” he says.
Picking the Late Harvest Chard has become quite the bonding activity among the winery staff. Everybody gets to come out and help pick the grapes, and most are genuinely shocked at the decrepitude facing them when they arrive at the block. Clearly, Schroeter enjoys their reaction and can’t resist having a bit of fun with it, “I make them each put a berry in their mouth so they can experience the shock of how incredibly good they taste!”
This year, they are picking half of the grapes before Thanksgiving, and the rest sometime in December, “Really, making a Late Harvest makes no sense, because everything has already been cleaned up from harvest. We’re just waiting around to make everything dirty again!”
They make the Late Harvest from two different blocks of Chard that are five miles apart. One block is clone 77 Chard, which is highly aromatic. He says it is less like Chardonnay, but gorgeously floral. Because it’s kind of a hassle, they only make the Late Harvest Chardonnay every two or three years.
Of the North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC), Schroeter, who is a judge and long-time friend of the organizer, Daryl Groom, believes it is one of the best-run competitions. He’s very much a fan of the panels, which feature winemakers, journalists and somms or wine buyers. And, new as of 2018, each panel also included associate judges, who were essentially judges in training.
“In Australia, practically all the wine competitions are judged exclusively by winemakers,” he explains. “It’s much more technically oriented. You have to be an associate judge to gain experience,” he observes.
The unique panels of the NCWC are a plus, though, “Having a mixed panel encourages discussion of each wine. You might miss something,” he notes, “Others bring it to your attention.”
As for wine competitions they enter, Schroeter says, “We focus on the local competitions. It means something to the local audience. You definitely do see an increase in wine sales after a win like this. People wonder ‘why was this wine a sweepstakes winner?’”
Although they make the Late Harvest Chardonnay only every three years or so, it has done well in competitions. Winning Best Dessert from the North Coast Wine Challenge definitely gave them some bragging points, and is certainly helping to sell the wine, which is available in 375’s. Perfect for the holidays, it makes a great hostess gift and fits nicely into stockings, too. Perhaps leave a glass for the jolly guy in the red suit.