Behind the Bottle

Nectar in a Bottle: Fernwood Cellars Late Harvest Riesling

By / Photography By Mary Orlin | January 15, 2015
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Matt Oetinger

Matt Oetinger, winemaker at Fernwood Cellars in Gilroy, never set out to make a late harvest wine. Several years ago, Zinfandel grapes from a vineyard in Placerville came into his winery with such a high sugar content that even fermented to 16.8% alcohol, the wine was still sweet. Oetinger figured it would take forever to sell such a sweet wine.

“It sold out in two months,” he says. Now he makes a late harvest Riesling dessert wine.

No sugar is added; sweetness occurs naturally in a lateharvest wine. When grapes are left on the vine longer than they would be to make a dry wine, something magical happens. A mold called Botrytis cinerea develops on the berries, causing them to darken and shrivel like raisins. This so-called “noble rot” makes the fruit look ugly, inedible. Grapes infected with Botrytis transform from juicy and slightly sweet to concentrated and syrupy.

Try to press juice out of raisin. Botrytised grapes have tiny amounts of juice inside.

Fernwood Cellars is tucked away at the end of Redwood Retreat Road in Gilroy. This property has been in Oetinger’s family since his great-grandfather homesteaded here in 1860 and opened the Redwood Retreat at the turn of the 20th century. Oetinger, whose father is also a winemaker, founded Fernwood Cellars in 1999, planting vineyards on and near the family estate.

The winery is also a stop on the new Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail.

Fernwood’s 2010 Late Harvest Riesling comes from a four-acre vineyard below Mt. Madonna Park. The elevation of the vineyard peaks at 300 feet, falling within the Santa Clara Valley AVA. The vines are somewhere between 40 and 50 years old.

“It’s a fun wine to make,” says Oetinger. He vinifies the late harvest Riesling more like a red wine than a white. Instead of immediately pressing the grapes, “I’ll actually de-stem and crush the fruit,” he says. Using liquid carbon dioxide, he blows “dry ice snow” into the fermenter, layering the crushed Botrytised berries with the dry ice snow “so we don’t oxidize it.” It’s a technique Oetinger came up with.

“We’ll leave it like that for three days trying to rehydrate some of those raisins to get them to let go of sugar. I also find that this method gives me a better extraction of that Botrytis flavor profile.” That profile, Oetinger says, has a wonderful peach aroma and flavor aspect. Only then does he press the juice from the grapes.

Fernwood’s late harvest Riesling has a rich golden hue. Heady aromas of honey, white flowers and petrol leap out of the glass. The scent of gasoline may not sound appealing, but petrol is a distinctive fragrant note in Riesling, many late-harvest aficionados love it. The full-bodied wine fills your mouth with peach and apricot flavors along with honey and a hint of almond. You get zestiness from a nice bite of acidity, which makes the wine fresh and keeps it from being cloying. This is pure nectar, to be sipped and savored slowly.

While Fernwood’s late harvest Riesling goes with almost any dessert, Oetinger likes to pair it with savory dishes. Prosciutto with blue cheese is a favorite. You can also serve the late harvest Riesling as an aperitif. Instead of sparkling wine or Champagne on Valentine’s Day, why not pop the cork on a late harvest wine like this instead?

In July 2013 Oetinger opened Vines of Los Gatos, which is the Los Gatos tasting room for Fernwood Cellars and Naumann Vineyards, where he is also the winemaker. You can taste the Fernwood late harvest Riesling here, along with Oetinger’s other wines by the pour, flight or glass.

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