CHEESE CONNOISSUER Reader: I’ve been reading a lot about ice wines, and I’m curious about what they are and when is a good time to order one. The other night I was eating in a very nice restaurant, and noticed the wine list included an ice wine. At $150 a bottle, I was very uncertain. I didn’t mind the price as much as I was hesitant to try such an expensive wine without knowing anything about it.
Ron Kapon: Well, you are correct to avoid very expensive wines you don’t know. I would recommend asking the wine sommelier on staff for advice. Ice wines are lovely, exquisite wines that are sweet with a velvety texture in the mouth. They are an especially wonderful treat to be savored. They also are one of the very best to serve with a cheese plate.
CC Reader: Great to know, but are they made with ice or are they served over ice?
R.K.: Actually, neither. Ice wine is a dessert wine that is produced from grapes that were frozen before being picked. It is called Eiswein in Germany and Austria and ice wine in Canada and the United States.
The grapes are left on the vine after the normal harvest is completed and dried into raisins. As winter arrives, the freezing temperatures dehydrate them, intensifying the sugar, acids and other components. The freezing occurs before fermentation.
Other dessert wines, such as Sauternes, Tokaji and Trockenbeerenauslese are affected by noble rot, a term used to describe a benevolent form of a light grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea, where the grapes become partially raisined when picked and produce a very concentrated sweet wine.
The grapes are left untouched on the vine until the temperature is 18 degrees Fahrenheit, usually in December or January. The grapes are harvested in their naturally frozen state, usually at night before the sun rises and the grapes thaw. The grapes are pressed while still frozen and the water in the juice (almost 80 percent) remains frozen as ice crystals during the pressing and punctures the inside of the grape skin drawing out more flavors. Yeast is added to the clear juice and fermentation begins — changing grape juice into wine. The unfermented sugar yields the nectar of the Gods — or ice wine.
CC Reader: Wow, that is interesting. I never heard of that, so what is the history of ice wine?
R.K.: The first recorded ice wine was made in Franconia, Germany around 1794. More than 100 years later, the 1928 harvest was quite harsh, and some grapes were left on the vine to use as animal fodder. These grapes produced a very sweet wine, and ice wine was born. It is believed that the vintage of 1961 in Germany began the modern era of ice wine production. The first recorded vintage of ice wine in Canada was 1984.
CC Reader: Where are ice wines produced? What grape varieties are used, and what should I taste?
R.K.: Ice wine is a cool-climate wine with a high level of acidity giving balance to the concentration of sugar in the grapes. Its production is suited to the climate conditions of the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario and the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia Canada, the Niagara escarpment, and Lake Ontario area in upstate New York as well as Germany. It is also made in other European countries such as Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.
Canada, especially the Niagara Peninsula, is the world’s largest ice wine producer. There are also U.S. producers in Northern Michigan and near Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York.
White ice wine is produced from the Riesling grape as well as the French hybrid Vidal. Other white grapes used to a lesser extent are the Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Red ice wine uses Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir. There are also sparkling ice wines made from Vidal and Cabernet Franc grapes.
White ice wines have aromas of lychee, apricot, pears, vanilla, apple cider, cinnamon and nutmeg. Their flavors include: honey, mango, tropical fruits and spices. The colors are pale yellow or light gold when young and a deeper amber-golden color as they age. Red ice wines have aromas of strawberries and rhubarb with full, rich flavors of red fruit. The bubbles in sparkling ice wines add a refreshing component that cuts the perception of sweetness.
CC Reader: What foods should I match with ice wines?
R.K.: As I mentioned before, ice wines are the perfect wine to go with cheese plates. They pair perfectly with most cheeses, especially blue cheeses, sheep milk cheeses and aged-cow milk cheeses.
Ice wines also go well with foie gras, fresh fruit plates, desserts and rich seafood dishes. Try the red ice wines with dark chocolate. Serve it on its own after a meal or with a dessert that is a bit lighter and less sweet.
CC Reader: Are there any other methods allowed to produce ice wine?
R.K.: If the grapes are frozen artificially, the wine can’t be called ice wine and the label must say “grapes frozen post-harvest.” The U.S. law for ice wine specifies the grapes must be naturally frozen. “Wine made from grapes frozen after harvest may not be labeled with the term “ice wine.” Several wineries use cryoextraction (mechanical freezing) to simulate the effect of a frost. Bonny Doon’s Vin de Glaciere and King Estate’s Vin Glace (made from Washington State Riesling) are two examples.
Here is a recipe from Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser’s book Icewine: Extreme Winemaking. Key Porter Books. Used with permission of the authors — co-founders of Inniskillin Wines — Canada.
Peaches with Raspberry Ice Wine Puree
1 cup (250ml) raspberries
3 Tbsp (45 ml) Cabernet Franc Ice Wine
6 ripe peaches
Mint sprig for garnish
In a blender at medium speed, blend raspberries and ice wine until smooth. Strain to remove seeds if desired. Chill until ready to use. Plunge peaches into boiling water for 10 seconds and peel the skins. Halve each peach, removing and discarding pits. Chill until ready to use. Slice the bottom of 4 peaches so they sit well on a plate. Place 2 more peach halves on top and spoon raspberry ice wine sauce over the top. Garnish with mint sprigs, and serve immediately. Serve with chilled Cabernet Franc Ice Wine. CC
Authors Note — Inniskillin Winery and Donald Ziraldo (Ziraldo Estate Winery) assisted in the preparation of this article.