Bubbly: WNY's Niagara and Catawba Sweet Grape Wines

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Honeymoon Trail Winery
4120 Ridge Road, Lockport, NY 14094
Web: Honeymoon Trail Winery
Phone: 716.438.3255
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Sweet grape wines aren't for everyone, but if you're looking for something that's close to a fancy ice wine without the staggering expense and small bottles, consider these picks."

Thus far in our Bubbly series, we've covered blueberry, cherry, raspberry, and cranberry wines from Western New York, but we've said very little about the most obvious fruit - the mighty grape. When the average sophisticated wine drinker thinks of grapes, he or she is most likely looking for something rich and complex, hinted with other flavors, and at least semi-dry rather than sweet. For purposes of this article, we're not; rather than focusing on the well-known Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or other dry, low-sugar options, we tasted five sweet choices from two local wineries. At least four of the options are available at Premier Group's Premium Wines shop in Williamsville; we actually picked up bottles this week at the wineries themselves.

Our favorites of the group came from Honeymoon Trail Winery in Lockport, NY, a must-stop location on our recent tour of the nearby Niagara Wine Trail. After an extended testing session that originally was dominated by another bottle, we were most taken by the Frozen Catawba ($11/750ml), a pink blush wine made from a light red-purple grape cultivated by American Indians, and subsequently used in sweet wines and ice wines. Served chilled, the Frozen Catawba was the second sweetest wine of this bunch, with a flavor akin to a slightly more sophisticated, less sugary version of white grape juice. We enjoyed every sip; it's thinner than an ice wine, but similarly lightly tart, and the flavor is every bit as pleasant. It merits 3.5 stars.

Originally, we were lured in to Honeymoon Trail's wine rack by the Frozen Niagara ($11/750ml), which the winery describes accurately as a "very, very sweet Niagara white wine." Niagara grapes, as it turns out, are the source of most white grape juice - a cross-breed of Concord and Cassady grapes that traditionally has been frowned upon for "serious" wines, but nonetheless has attracted admirers due to its unique and complex taste. On our first sip, we knew this would be a fun dessert wine, and its sweetness was a major selling point; it possesses an even more obvious grape flavor, seemingly higher residual sugar content, and a little more alcoholic punch than the Catawba. Yet our comparisons showed that the Catawba stood up better over time; the Frozen Niagara offered less complexity and consequently didn't strike us as equally compelling after a glass or so. We came to view it as similar to a sweetened grape juice, with the alcohol drowned out by the sugar content; it's nice but not Honeymoon Trail's best. It is worthy of 2.5 stars.

An alternative to the Frozen Niagara is Honeymoon Trail's Mighty Niagara ($9/750ml), which lowers the sugar level from the Frozen Niagara, and adds just enough carbonation to give the alcohol a spicy kick with every sip. While sweeter than a semi-dry wine, the Mighty Niagara is impossible to confuse with the Frozen Niagara, possessing a stronger grape flavor and less of an ice wine's near-syrupy sweet leanings. We diverged in our views on this one, with one of us placing it somewhere between the Frozen Niagara and its competitor below, and the other feeling that it was equal in quality to the Frozen Niagara, but different. On balance, we'd give it a 2.5 star rating overall. Note that Honeymoon Trail also offers a less sweet "Pink Catawba" bottle at the same price, which we are not rating.

Two other bottles we purchased came from the nearby Freedom Run Winery in Lockport, visited on the same day and selected for this column because it similarly offered both Niagara and Catawba versions. While we were impressed by the inside of Freedom Run's facility, which is seemingly more spacious and modern than Honeymoon Trail's, we ultimately preferred the latter's sweet wines; Freedom Run's are also served chilled, but taste comparatively dry.

The 2005 Freedom Run Catawba ($10/750ml) was our least favorite of the wines. Though it's described by the winery as "sweet and supple," we found it to be a slightly more watery semi-dry, starting with a relatively powerful grape and alcohol kick, eroding to a bitter aftertaste, the 11% alcohol lingering the longest of the bunch on the tongue. Freedom Run calls it a "crowd pleaser," and it may work for some, but we wouldn't be amongst them. Our rating is 1.5 stars.

Freedom Run's 2005 Niagara ($9/750ml) was better by comparison, simultaneously sweeter and a little more complex, though still a semi-dry by comparison with the Honeymoon Trail version. It starts sweet, with a light, white grape taste, then fades to bitter; despite a 12% alcohol content, the alcohol stands out less from the sugar and the grapes, becoming more apparent - but gently - only as the other flavors fall away. While the grape taste isn't as "big and bold" as the bottle suggests, it's pleasant, if not wonderful. We'd rate it 2 stars.

Sweet grape wines aren't for everyone, but if you're looking for something that's close to a fancy ice wine without the staggering expense and small bottles, the picks above - particularly the Honeymoon Trail ones - deliver a lot of the experience on a more reasonable budget. We'll discuss some other sweet wines in our next Bubbly column, coming soon.

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