N’ice Wine!

I’m not much of a dessert wine fan.  I’m not a hater, but too many of them taste like Karo syrup to me.  But Icewine . . . I’ll fight you for a bottle of Icewine!

The first time I tasted Icewine, my eyeballs rolled into the back of my head, eloquence abandoned me, and the only words I could find were, Damn, that’s gooood!  

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What is Icewine?

Well it’s definitely not wine with an ice cube in it . . . that makes Bacchus cry.

Icewine (if you’re in Canada) or Eiswein (if you’re in Germany) is a sweet wine made with grapes that have frozen while they are still on the vine.  The grapes are allowed to hang on the vine well past the time of harvest, exposing them to everything Mother Nature can throw at them — temperature extremes, storms . . . and hungry animal critters.  Over time, the grapes dehydrate, partially freezing and thawing several times before they are picked, causing a glorious concentration of natural sugars in the grapes.

The grapes aren’t picked until outside temperatures reach a magical, sustained -8ºC/18ºF.   At that time (and not a second before) the grapes are harvested and go immediately to the winery for pressing.  As the frozen grapes are pressed, any water stays behind in the form of ice crystals (because water freezes before sugar), and what comes out of the press is the coveted, concentrated juice that makes Icewine.

The key difference between Icewine/Eiswein and other decadent dessert wines like German Trokenbeerenauslese, Hungarian Tokaj or French Sauternes, is that Icewine grapes are not plagued by Botrytis (Noble Rot), the good fungus that makes those wines possible.

Who discovered Icewine?

Credit the Germans . . . by happy accident.  Sometime around 1794, there was an unexpected, very early freeze in the vineyards of Germany.  And instead of making compost out of their frozen grapes, the farmers decided to go ahead with harvest and then . . . Eiswein happened!

Those farmers had vision!  If my grapes looked like this at harvest time, my first thought would have been, we’re screwed . . . not let’s pick ’em and press ’em!

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Where is Icewine made?

Not in the Bahamas.  Icewine can only be made in areas of the world where it’s cold enough for grapes to actually freeze on the vine.  Canada and Germany are the top ice wine producers in the world.  Germany has been making Eiswein since the 19th Century; Canada entered the Icewine game around 1984.  Canada’s largest Icewine producer, Iniskillin, is located in Niagara.  I’ll bet Niagara is beautiful in the summer. Hmmm . . . Field trip?  In the US, the Finger Lakes region of New York, Michigan, and parts of Washington state are making all kinds of exciting waves in Icewine. Latitude is everything!

What kind of grapes are used to make Icewine?

Icewine is charaterized by a high level of acidity . . . that’s what makes it so special. A wine this sweet without enough acidity to balance it will taste like something from the syrup bar at IHOP.  Almost all Icewine is made from grapes with high levels of acidity —  RieslingVidal Blanc or Cabernet Franc.

Why is Icewine so expensive?

A good, authentic Icewine will run you $30-40 on the low end, and easily into triple digits on the high end.  And that’s for a little 375ml bottle.  Why so expensive?

  • Making ice wine is a risky business.  You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she’s moody.  If the grapes rot before there’s a freeze, then you have a pile of rotten grapes . . . and no Icewine.  Or if a herd of hungry deer snacks on your crop before you can harvest them . . . again, no Icewine for you!
  • You also need a quick-reaction force of workers who are willing to drop everything and come running to the vineyard when it’s “time” to pick the grapes.  And then you get to pick grapes, by hand, for several hours in the middle of the night.

I’d pick frozen grapes all night if I could have a bottle of Icewine in my swag bag . . .

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  • Once you get the frozen grapes into the winery, you have to press them — before they can think about thawing.  And the juice that comes out of the press is a trickle, not a geyser.  It’s usually 15% of what you would get during a regular press.  There’s just not much of the stuff to go around.  And the one thing I retained from ECON 101 is that when supply is low, demand is high . . . and so are prices.

Why couldn’t you just pick the grapes really late and then throw them in the freezer?

Enter controversy.  Some wineries use a process called cryo-extraction, which artificially freezes harvested grapes to replicate the natural freezing on the vine. Cryo wine is less risky and less labor intensive, so it’s about half the price of a true Icewine.  I think of it as Cubic Zirconia wine — it’s still really pretty, but it’s not the real thing.

The word Icewine is actually trademarked in Canada by the Vintners Quality Alliance (also known as the Canadian Wine Cops).  If you put the word Icewine on your label, then you must follow the rules (there are more rules than this, but they’re boring, so I’m hitting the highlights):

  • Only Vitis Vinifera or Vidal Blanc grapes can be used in the wine.
  • The air temperature must be -8ºC/18ºF before the grapes can be harvested.  (The grapes must freeze on the vine).
  • Sugar levels must reach at least 35º Brix (the sugar content of a solution).

The Germans have similar, very strict regulations governing the production of Eiswein.  I’d be shocked if they didn’t.  My people are German . . . my people love rules.

We have rules in the US, too.  The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) rulebook says that wine made from grapes frozen after harvest cannot be labeled with the term “Icewine” or any variation.  And if you use grapes frozen after harvest, you have to say so on the label.

Pacific Rim Winery in Washington makes a cryo-wine from Riesling called Vin de Glaciere.  It sells for about $14 and got got a 90 point Wine Spectator Rating.    I’d love to do a blind tasting of that against Inniskillin’s Riesling Icewine.  That one sells for about $70 and got a 91 point Spectator rating (for the 2007 vintage).  But that’s a blog post for another day . . .

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How to serve and what to pair with Icewine?

  • Serve Icewine chilled, but not ice cold.  And please, in the name of Bacchus, don’t put ice cubes in it.
  • If you serve Icewine with a dessert, make sure the dessert is less sweet than the Icewine.  Otherwise, the wine and the dessert will fight with each other.
  • Icewine is supposed to be phenomenal with pâté or foie gras.  I can’t wait to try this recipe:  Seared Foie Gras with Icewine Caramelized Apples and Baby Greens.
  • Icewine is great with fresh fruit and cheeses.  Inniskillin has an outstanding pairing guide to over 100 cheeses.
  • Make a Frostbite Martini  . . . as pretty as it is tasty!
  • Or serve Icewine my favorite way . . . all by itself.

Salud!

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