It’s frigid across the U.S. right now, and in Denver, CO we’re in the midst of recovering from a biting cold snap. So what better time to bring up some basic info on ice wines? These are especially refreshing dessert wines, which naturally become that way by freezing the grapes on the vine, leaving concentrated, flavorful extract and sugars in the fermentation process.
Botrytis Cinerea (Noble Rot) can affect Sauternes and other popular dessert wines; however, only healthy grapes make it to an ice wine harvest, which results in a clean, refreshing sweetness that is balanced by high acidity.
Though Pliny the Elder documented frozen grape harvests in Ancient Rome, citing that certain varietals were absolutely not to be harvested before the 1st frost. Later legend describes a German winemaker stumbling upon “eiswein” when he was forced to leave his vineyard, missing the autumn harvest. Upon his return all of the grapes had been frozen on the vine; however, he unwaveringly harvested and pressed the frozen grapes for fermentation. The result: the first "eiswein." Today the production of ice wine is understandably limited to regions that can effectively grow grapes and also reach but not exceed (with some consistency) the cold temperatures required for a frozen harvest. Germany is still one of the largest producers of ice wines, though quickly being outshone by Canada, namely British Columbia and Ontario. Recent regulations in the growing regions of Canada may be obstructing wine producers from harvesting grapes prior to them being adequately frozen, though still naming the wine “ice wine.” (This practice is infrequent; however still occurs, and the wines they produce seldom merit the title.)
Grapes most commonly used for ice wines include Riesling, Vidal, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc for their levels of acidity. They can be red or white, though red ice wines tend to appear lighter and pinker in color than red table wine. Ice wines typically emerge medium to full-bodied with peaches and apricots on the nose, and a subtle minerality on the tongue. Nuances such as honey can sometimes shine forth with other exotic flavors of tropical mango and sometimes strawberry or slight spice.
Ice wine can be on the pricey side due to frozen grapes yielding small quantities of liquid, needing more grapes to produce a bottle; the process can also be slow and difficult due to the requirement for natural freezing and difficulties with yeast cells maintaining balance in fermentation; and finally, there is a limited supply of producers. Here though are our favorite picks:
This German producer creates an eiswein with a complex palette of honey, caramel, raisins, and concentration of fruits. This wine pairs exceptionally well with ripe, blue-veined cheese.
Inniskillin has two vineyards in Niagara and Okanagan, Canada. The Okanagan Valley’s Ice Wine Vidal is a Riesling varietal that retails for about $40-$50. Suggested pairings include fruit cobbler or cheesecake. The Niagara produces a Sparkling Cabernet Franc that retails for about $120 and has outstanding ruby bursts of raspberries, rhubarb, and strawberries that balance well with chocolate or fresh red fruit.
From the Vidal varietal, this wine is very bright gold and has aromas of peaches and baked apples. This rich and concentrated Icewine has a smooth honeyed character, a refreshing surge of tropical fruit and the hallmark acidity to balance the luscious sweetness. This wine can price as high as $90.
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