Sipping Ice, Eis, baby
Baby, it’s cold outside.
And that means it is a perfect time to write about the wine of the frozen grapes, Icewine.
Icewine or Eiswein, as it is called in Germany and Austria where the style first gained popularity, refers to wine that has been made from grapes that literally freeze on the vine before they are harvested. The process, one of the most painstaking and expensive in the world of winemaking, produces a unique sweet liquid that is enjoyed with dessert or, by itself, as a dessert.
In recent years, thanks largely to the efforts of the Inniskillin Winery in the Niagara Lakes region of Canada, Icewines have exploded in popularity. Today many of the best examples of the style come from Canada.
Dessert wines rely on high sugar concentration in the grapes. You may have heard of and tasted dessert wines that have been labeled as “Late Harvest.” These sweet wines generally are made from grapes that have been left late on the vine through the harvest season into the fall so that the levels of sugar or brix (the unit of measure for sugar content) will rise to a winemaker’s taste.
Then there are the spectacular wines from the Sauternes region of France, Tokaji in Hungary and the German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerennauslese. These wines are the result of a process that intentionally allows the grapes (each region uses different grape varieties) to be affected by a naturally occurring fungus called Botrytis Cinerea. When afflicted, the grapes actually begin to ferment on the vine and turn an ashen gray color as they wither like raisins, losing moisture and concentrating sweetness. In the hands of a skilled winemaker this can lead to sticky, sweet, straw-colored wines that are as sublime on the tongue as they are damaging to the wallet.
And then there is Icewine.
Icewines, generally made from the Riesling grape, are the longest-hanging of all. They are the last harvested of all the late harvest wines. The grapes, rather than withering on the vines and concentrating their sugar, are kept in prime condition until a hard freeze sets in, usually in late December or early January, and freezes them. They are then picked quickly, frequently in the middle of the night by hand, and pressed, releasing the sweetness from the marble-hard berries while leaving the excess moisture behind as frozen ice crystals. This process is meticulous and requires not just great skill but also good luck and the cooperation of Mother Nature.
The first Icewines were produced in the 1700s in the coolest regions of Germany and Austria. In 1984, Donald Ziraldo, an icon in the Canadian winemaking industry, and his partner, Karl Kaiser, an Austrian (naturally), made their first Icewine at their Inniskillin Winery in the Niagara region of Ontario. That experiment, coupled with the recognition of their wines at the prestigious Vinexpo in Bordeaux, spawned an industry.
Today, Canada is recognized internationally for producing world-class Icewines from both the Niagara region and Okanagan Valley region of British Columbia. The Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA, of Canada has set strict rules and regulations to ensure that the wine meets expectations. For example, to be considered an Icewine the harvest may not occur prior to Nov. 15 each year. The grapes must be harvested at a temperature not to exceed minus 8 Celsius (17.6 Fahrenheit), and harvesting must take place before 10 a.m.
The resulting wines are as highly acidic as they are sweet and pair extremely well with strong cheeses (think Roquefort or various blues) and savory dishes. It can also be drunk alone as a sweet something before bed.
I was introduced to the wine by Ziraldo himself, who I met at the Woody Creek Tavern. It turns out the wine impresario is also a ski junkie and frequently visits Aspen.
If you have a hankering for something sweet, try the Inniskillin wines locally. They will warm you on a cold night.
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