What happens to late harvest California wines as they age??

I was curious and need some help. Some friends and I purchased some older late harvest wines and I am curious as to what to expect. They are both from 1980…one is a Phelps and the other is Grgich. What do these wines do with age? Will they lose some or all of their sweetness? We are also wondering what to pair with them as a dinner course. Thanks in advance.
Marshall [thankyou.gif]


Some Arrowood LH Rieslings from 93 have been tremendous recently. Could easily age another decade or so.


I assume you’re talking about whites.

The best can easily go 15-20+ years, though often without a lot of evolution. The old Phelps and Ch. St. Jeans were wonderful. An unheralded late harvest star was Long.

In the late 90s a friend and I found a stash of halves from the early and mid-80s for $2 or so each and they made lovely drinking for many years.

I’d expect the reds to go even longer, given the tannins. Certainly the old LH Ridge zins can go the distance.

We drank a 1979 Estrella River Winery Muscat Canelli Late Harvest San Luis Obispo County last night and it sure had a whole heck of a lot of sweetness to it (17.9% residual sugar, after all). It was a bit lifted and burnished orange in tone, but fresh and plenty lively.


Excellent responses, thank you.

My experiences have been similar to the ones mentioned. I believe the sweetness remains a strong component as the wines age. A few of my friends seem to think the sweetness dissipates but truthfully, I do not.

Any more and further responses are welcome! [help.gif]
Any winemakers out there care to add a comment or two? [thankyou.gif]


Marshall [cheers.gif]

At that brix levels, wines don’t thin out so much.

The distinctive thing in the very late LH wines from California is the orange peel note, which you get in riesling. In blind tastings, that’s the easiest way to spot them, I’ve found.

Note on a Talley that I had up at Aaron Pott’s place last Summer.

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My most recent one was badly maderied, sadly. However, when the bottles are pristine, the 93’s are the best dessert wines ever made in North America. I think I have one left.

They darken considerably, sometimes frightenly so, but usually remain fresh and unoxidized. I do believe the sweetness decreases a bit, but so does the acidity so they remain quite sweet. They tend to become quite viscous and unctous. I love them.

Had some 81’ CSJ late harvest rieslings, wow also the first vintage of Beringer Nightingale, stunning, I believe it was a 82’ 4 or 5 years ago.

Buy em’ if you can, they age well.


Yeah, I’ve had a few late 79s/early 80s CSJ Robert Young LH rieslings that varied from pretty good to stellar.

Glad to see this thread and some positive notes on late harvest California wines.
I recently opened a 1990 Navarro Late Harvest White Riesling. The wine was purchased at the winery and cellared at a splendid 55 degree temperature.
This was quite brown. It has a nice nose of hazelnuts and some chemical notes. Sherry-like. A bit chemical and off. There are some nice elements of nuts and honey but all covered with an oxidized and chemical base. Too bad. This was delicious when last tasted some 15 years ago.

The Phelps I’ve seen have varying levels of botrytis and residual sugar. I have '75 and '76 and they are wildly different from the label specifications, IIRC. I don’t know the chemistry, but will agree that at some age the RS does seem to dissipate or be absorbed by the wine as a preservative (perhaps?). Enough RS and the age that you get there may be 100 years.

In terms of where to put these in a meal, I like to experiment with these on their own at the end if I think they’ll be at all sweet. If I had direct reports on the sweetness, a dessert, foie gras, or cheese course might also be good places to put them in. If they’re really not that sweet, you might have a good foil for certain pork preparations.


Thank you all and keep the comments coming! These wines and others were purchased from a well kept, extremely cold cellar. A bunch of Berserkers will be tasting a sampling of these wines in the near future and hopefully will get a decent thread up discussing the results. [thumbs-up.gif]

Marshall [cheers.gif]

On the color scale, where have folks been seeing late harvest wines with 15+ years of age?
My recent 20 year old Navarro late harvest Riesling was only slightly lighter than motor oil. Much darker than what I had expected. The bottle was dark green and the wine kept in a dark cellar so oxidation from light would not (should not) have been a factor.

We had a 83 Grains Noble from Weinbach last Saturday night, the wine was sound had a great nose but very litttle sweetness was left. Sandi was at the table and said sugar will drop out over a long period of time amount depending on the wine. This was my first experience of a dessert wine that had lost sugar content. You know I had cellared the wine properly.

Do you know anything about the 1990 vintage? And was it a plain “Late Harvest” or the “Cluster Select Late Harvest”?

I ask because botrytis is a factor in aging, for it concentrates both sugar and – crucially – acid. It’s the acid that explains the extraordinary longevity of German and Loire whites, not the sugar alone. Even in a cool climate like Anderson Valley, I think the acids are lower than in the cooler climates of Europe that producer the great LH wines.

As for Navarro, they never aim for the biggest, most potent anything. (To me that’s their charm.) I don’t have a lot of experience with their LH wines, but I could imagine them weighing in with something a little less intense and long-lasting.

I guess I may have to open up my one bottle of their 2004 Cluster Select LH Riesling. But I’d be bummed if I opened it too soon.


Several years ago we picked up 6 bottles of Grgich late harvest that the winery was practically giving away. I do not remember the years but they were at least 12-15 years old at the time and drinking beautifully. We drank them over a few years but they still had time.