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Ice Wines Offer Cold Comfort
By Tina Caputo
Oct 28, 2008
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I look forward to autumn not for the brightly colored leaves or the crisp weather, but for the food.  Pumpkin bread, butternut squash risotto, golden delicious apples from our backyard tree--these seasonal treats are what make the end of summer a time of excitement instead of dread.  Fall also brings a change in my wine cravings.  As temperatures drop, I gravitate toward richer, more aromatic wines. 

To me, ice wine is the luscious liquid equivalent of my favorite fall treats: sweet, spicy and a little bit tart. 

Ice wines are unique in the realm of dessert wines in that the grapes used to make them--usually Riesling or Vidal (a French hybrid)--are left to hang on the vines until they freeze solid.  Ice wines are also different from other dessert wines, like Sauternes and Tokaji, in that they're not typically made with grapes affected by Botrytis, or noble rot.

In Canada, where some of the best ice wines are made, the law dictates that ice wine grapes can't be picked until the temperature plunges below 17°F.  As the clusters remain on the vines well into December and even January, vintners can only wait and hope that harsh winter winds and hail don't damage the grapes, and that greedy birds don't swoop in and devour their precious fruit before they get a chance to pick it. 

The grapes are harvested by hand--usually in the frigid early morning--and quickly pressed while still frozen.  (The intensely concentrated juice will be diluted if the grapes are allowed to thaw.)  When the grapes freeze, the juice is separated into ice crystals (water) and highly concentrated, sweet juice; after pressing, only the sweet nectar remains. 

The frozen grapes yield only one-tenth to one-fifth of the amount of juice that would normally come from non-frozen grapes, which means that it takes a whole lot more of them to produce a bottle of wine.  (Translation: Ice wine is not only risky to produce, it's expensive!)

Because of the wine's high sugar content, fermentation can take months to complete. 

The resulting wine is worth the extra time and effort.  It's sweet, silky and intensely flavored--often with apricot, tropical fruit and honey notes--and balancing acidity.  Ice wine is also low in alcohol, usually ranging from 6% to around 12%.

Ice Wine Country

Due to that pesky freezing-on-the-vine requirement, grapes artificially frozen after harvest can't legally be called ice wine--the wines can only be made in parts of the world where freezing temperatures occur for an extended period of time.  Ice wine (a.k.a. Eiswein) was first commercially produced in Germany, in the mid-1800s.  Though ice wines are also made in Austria, Croatia and many other European countries, Germany continues to set the quality standard for the rest of the world.  It also commands the highest prices; German Eisweins often sell for $100 to $300 per 375ml bottle. 

Canada got into the game in the 1970s, and some say it's poised to steal Germany's crown as reigning ice wine king.  In 1991 the Canadian industry had a major breakthrough when the Inniskillin 1989 Vidal Ice Wine won the Grand Prix trophy at Vinexpo, in Bordeaux.  Inniskillin is one of Canada's most important and well-known ice wine producers, along with Jackson-Triggs. 

Today, Canada is the world's largest producer of ice wine, with more than 40 wineries--mainly in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley--producing the amber-colored nectar.  Canadian ice wines are typically more affordable than German ones, averaging around $45 per 375ml bottle.

Colder U.S. wine regions also produce some very good ice wines.  As New York's Finger Lakes region has built a solid reputation for its Riesling wines, the region has likewise gained a following for its impressive ice wines.  Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula, and Washington's Yakima and Columbia valleys are also gaining recognition in the ice wine arena. 

How to Drink It

Ice wine should be served chilled, in a glass with a medium-size bowl to bring out the wine's wonderful aromas (Riedel even makes a special ice wine glass, which is diamond-shaped, with an oversized bowl). 

I usually think of ice wine as liquid dessert--it's sweet and decadent, and doesn't fill me up the way, say, a big ol' slice of cheesecake would.  That said, it makes a fabulous match for many cheeses--from pungent blue to creamy brie--and fruit-based desserts, like pies and tarts.  Last weekend I opened a bottle of Pinnacle Ice Apple Wine (see the Reviews page for tasting notes) to serve with a freshly baked apple pie, and let me tell you, the combination was amazing.  Like the pie, the wine was luscious and sweet, but with a crisp, balancing acidity. 

Now if that doesn't say "fall," I don't know what does.