While the weather has been trying to make up its mind, I have spent some time researching dessert wines. A style of wine that has truly begun to fascinate me is ice wine, also known in Germany as "eiswein." New York, Canada and Germany are known for producing some of the best ice wines in the world.
Ice wine is a very rare, sweet and concentrated wine made from frozen grapes left on the vines. Picked at temperatures 18 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, the grapes are pressed to separate frozen water from the sweet juice.
Whether the grapes are affected by "botrytis cinerea," meaning "noble rot" (or, in German, "edelfaule"), is a commonly asked question. The answer is no.
According to "Windows of the World" by Kevin Zraly, "Botrytis cinerea is a mold that (under special conditions) attacks grapes. Noble rot occurs late in the growing season when the nights are cool and heavy with dew." Ice wine is simply frozen grapes that are pressed.
One of my favorite AVAs in the United States that makes ice wine is the Finger Lakes. Finger Lakes is one of the most varying of New York’s viticultural areas. There are more than 30 grape varieties produced in this part of the world. For ice wine, riesling and vidal are the most commonly used. Occasionally, you may see cabernet franc grapes used.
According to "American Wine" by Jancis Robinson, there is a huge risk with producing ice wine: "Leaving the grapes on the vine this long makes them susceptible to disease, devastating rains and sweet-toothed critters. And in warm vintages, the grapes may not freeze, and a valuable crop turns to useless mush on the vines."
Now, there are "iced wines" that are different from ice wine. Iced wines are made by freezing the grapes at the winery. In terms of quality, most vintners choose to produce ice wine in the "traditional" way to preserve quality.
Canada is the world’s largest icewine producer (note their condensing to one word: icewine). Canada’s modern winemaking history began in the early 19th century; however, the grapes were not planted on a large scale until the 1970s. According to the Guild of Sommeliers, Canada, like the U.S., suffered through Prohibition in the early 20th century. Ontario was the last province to repeal prohibition in 1927 and is now the most well-known for its icewine production. However, Inniskillin Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake has singlehandedly created an international reputation for Canadian icewine.
The most common grape variety used in ice wine is vidal, the only French hybrid allowed by Vintners Quality Alliance. However, Inniskillin produces their most acclaimed wines from riesling and cabernet franc. The VQA was established to ensure quality by setting standards to all wines made in Canada. Approved bottles will sport a VQA label on the bottle.
In German, "eiswein" phonetically sounds like "ice vine." Germany is known for the most notable and expensive ice wines in the world. They are created in the same style; however, they use different grape varieties. Canada uses vidal for their icewine production, whereas Germany uses riesling.
In my personal opinion, German eiswein can be slightly sweeter, but riesling provides incredible complexity. I have found that German eiswein ages far better than its international counterparts.
As you’re thinking about braving the cold weather, think about enjoying a nice bottle of ice wine when you get home tonight. I recommend it with any dessert, especially bread pudding!
Here are a few producers to try:
• Mission Hill (Okanagan)
• Pillitteri (Niagara)
• Casa Larga
• Dr. Loosen
Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. You can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.