Canadian ice wine vineyards

Canadian ice wine vineyards

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

World class wines from frozen grapes?


Winegrowers are confronted with more natural and manmade calamities than you and I can possibly imagine.  What would you do, for example, if a few days before harvesting the grapes, there is an unanticipated, hard frost that freezes your grapes? 

Like any good farmer-survivalist, you pick and press ‘em as fast as possible to see what the heck comes of it.  At least the remaining solids can be fed to the livestock.  According to most published sources, that is what occurred near Wurzburg, Germany in the late 1700s and led to the “discovery” of eiswein (ice wine), one of the world’s most singularly, satisfying, world-class dessert wines.  

While originally the result of an unexpected and drastic drop in temperatures, the modern production of ice wine is quite the opposite.  The entire production process, though well planned and organized, is still not without its own set of risks and expenses.  It requires ripe, concentrated, immaculately maintained grapes that are pest and mold-free and still on the vines many months after a standard harvest. Delays in reaching and maintaining the required outside temperature can result in rotting grapes.  

Pickers must be “on call” or otherwise immediately available.  Harvesting is done in the darkness of night or in the dimness of generator driven lights.  Picking must be completed before temperatures rise, and the crush must be completed immediately after the harvest.  The entire cycle is typically no more than eight hours.  (Fermentation, which can take months, rather than days or weeks, also brings is own set of risks and requirements.)

To be sure, ice wine harvesting is a singular and challenging departure from a conventional grape harvest. There are, moreover, additional requirements during the crush—which also vary from traditional pressings—that are needed to bring forth an exceptional wine from near-comatose grapes. 

 What makes it all come to pass is based on the freezing point for the various elements that comprise the grape. Sugars and dissolved solids freeze at a lower point than water, and when the frozen grapes are pressed, what little water remains in the sugar and acid-rich grapes is pressed out in the form of ice crystals.  What results is a very small amount of sweet, crisp, concentrated grape juice.

Although Germany is considered the birthplace of ice wine, it does not have recurring, hard-freeze, weather conditions to ensure a regular, well planned, annual harvest.  Enter Canada, where icewine (as it is known there) has been produced regularly since 1984.  It is the proud recipient of numerous prestigious awards for its high quality wines, and Canada is now recognized as the world’s leading producer of ice wines, with Inniskillin Wines capturing the bulk of the recognition.

Note: there are also some alternative, “non-natural ice wines” in the marketplace that are produced by “cryoextraction,” a procedure whereby the grapes are removed from the vines and commercially frozen.  Known as “icebox wines,” they are substantially less costly, however, for the price, they are a good place to initiate one’s study.  (Bonny Doon’s Vin de Glacière has been well received.) 

As for ice wine’s underlying grapes, Germany and Austria prefer Riesling, while Canadians tend to rely upon Vidal, a hybrid from Ugni Blanc and Seibel. Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and even some reds like Syrah and Cabernet Franc have been utilized, with aromas and flavors, of course, varying accordingly.

Ice wine is the quintessential example of the importance of balance.  Served at champagne temperatures, ice wine is a high-wire act that marries the tension between sugar and acidity, yielding a medium to full bodied, peach/pear/pineapple, fruit bomb with a long, satisfyingly, crisp finish.  It is nothing less than the piercingly pure, nectar-like essence of the grape.  It is a unique wine experience that awaits every serious wine enthusiast.     

Lastly, while it can, and should, be enjoyed by itself without accompaniments, ice wine is typically served with fruits and cheeses, fruit-based tarts and basic pound cakes.  Old time gourmands will likely suggest the last of the forbidden foods: foie gras.

Of course, what we are talking about here are small, savory sips of a concentrated and expensive wine, which are typically sold in 375 ml bottles.  Prices range from $45 to $80 or more depending on the vintage and producer.  As such, with Christmas just around the corner, one of the 375 ml bottles might be a nifty gift for your wine-enthused loved one.