Extreme flavors and price mark it as a cut above
“No, you are not spending $65 on that teeny, tiny bottle of wine,” said my wife, arms crossed, hands on hips.
“You don’t understand,” I said, cradling the bottle like it was a baby, “it’s ice wine!”
I left without my ice wine that day, but my passion for it was not deterred.
“It’s just a dessert wine,” she said later. “We can get a bottle of Moscato instead.”
I gasped audibly. How could she? The two had as little to do with each other as a cabernet sauvignon and a chenin blanc.
Dessert wines get a bad rap, in general. If they aren’t all getting lumped together, they’re being dismissed as sissy drinks or unsophisticated, simplistic backwash. I couldn’t disagree more, especially when it comes to the super-rare and ultra-expensive ice wine (or eiswein, if it’s German).
Ice wine is amazing, and not just because it sounds like a beverage from Game of Thrones. The reason the flavors in ice wine 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 Spatelese (“late harvest”), Auslese (“select harvest”) or even Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese (“select berry harvest” and “dried select berry harvest,” respectively) are made. While those 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 juice that is left is 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 to $200. So how can a normal person get hold of some of this amazing stuff? One solution is to go north. Canada, while not the ideal climate for most wine grapes, is the perfect place to produce ice wine. There are dozens of reputable producers of ice wine from our northern brethren, but my favorite has to be Inniskillin Riesling Icewine ($79.95 at Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave., at 59th St., 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 ice wine from the North American grape vidal that is not as complex but is still delicious and intense.
Another way to get the ice wine 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 that are worth trying. The Bonny Doon Muscat Vin de Glaciere ($20 at First Avenue Wines & Spirits, 383 1st Ave., at 22nd St., 212-673-3600) has all of the sweet honeyed stone fruit you could ever ask for in an ice wine, 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.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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