I have had a sweet tooth since I was a little kid. Despite working
briefly as a waiter at the cloying Upper East Side dessert destination
Serendipity (so many bar mitvahs, so little patience), my cravings for
the sweet stuff have not been deterred. If anything, they’ve evolved.
In general, dessert wine gets a bad rap. Most people dismiss dessert
wines as sissy drinks or unsophisticated, simplistic backwash. I
couldn’t disagree more, especially when it comes to the super rare and
ultra-expensive icewine (or eiswein, if it’s German).
The reason icewine flavors are so intense—and the cause for its
extreme price—has to do with how it’s made. In Germany, the growing
areas tend to be relatively cool, so the growing season is longer. The
Germans classify their grapes for wine by how late into the harvest
they are picked. A Kabinett is a wine made from grapes picked at normal
harvest time. If it’s a good year and the grapes are ripening slower,
then a Spatelese (literally meaning “late harvest”), an Auslese
(“select harvest”), or even a Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese
(“select berry harvest” and “dried select berry harvest,” respectively)
is made. While these are a mouthful, and extremely rare, even rarer is
the once-a-decade jewel in the crown of any Riesling grower: eiswein.
If the grapes are allowed to stay on the vines all the way to the
first frost, eiswein can be made. The traditional way to harvest these
berries is before dawn, after the first frost, with gloved hands, so as
not to warm the chilled berries with your body heat. The grapes are
then crushed before they have a chance to thaw and the water rises to
the top in the form of ice. The ice is removed, and the tiny amount of
remaining juice left is what’s made into wine.
What does this incredibly complex process yield? One of the most
seductive, complex and nuanced beverages you will ever have the
privilege of sipping—if you can afford it, that is. Often packaged in
half-bottles, new vintages of German eiswein often average around $150
So how can a normal person get a hold of some of this amazing stuff?
One solution is to go north. Canada, while not the ideal climate for
most winemaking grapes, is the perfect place to produce icewine. There
are dozens of reputable producers of icewine from our northern
brethren, but my favorite has to be Inniskillin Riesling Icewine
($69.95 @ Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave. near 60th, 212-838-7500). At
half the price of what you would pay for the same quality from Germany,
you get the complex flavors of honey, overripe peach, wildflowers and
bracing citrus. If you’re looking for something even less expensive,
Inniskillin makes an Icewine from the North American grape Vidal that
is not as complex, but still delicious and intense.
Another way to get the icewine flavor without the cost is by buying
what is known as a “freezer wine.” These wines are made by freezing the
grapes after they’ve been picked, then taking away the excess water and
fermenting from there. While most freezer wines are vastly inferior in
taste, and many purists regularly lobby for them to be outlawed
outright, there are a few worth trying. The Bonny Doon Muscat Vin de
Glaciere ($17 @ First Avenue Wines & Spirits, 383 First Ave. at
22nd St., 212-673-3600) has all the sweet honeyed stone fruit you could
ever ask for in an icewine, plus a sucker punch of spice on the finish.
Don’t let the heavy price tag of German eiswein put a chill on your
dessert plans. There are plenty of alternatives well within your
monetary means that will keep you in sweet wine bliss indefinitely.