Winter is upon us. With the short days, and long cold nights, comes one sweet reward: ice wine.
Canada and Germany are the top global producers of ice wine, with Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc leading the charge as varietals of choice. In keeping with the creative drive in all wine production these days, many vinters are experimenting with other grapes including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Ehrenfelser, Pinot Noir and Merlot. These have met with limited success in true ice wines, but are making strides as icebox wines instead.
To be considered a true ice wine, the grapes used for production must be frozen on the vine, and harvested at a temperature below -8 C, or 17 F. This practice, enforced by law, contributes to the low volumes produced, high prices and irregular vintages. Because the harvest of ice wine grapes must wait for a hard freeze, the fruit often hangs on the vine for months longer than is deemed safe. If the temperature remains above freezing, grapes are subject to rot, and even if spared that indignity can be lost to predation by animals or by simply falling off the vine.
Given these risk factors, several producers are now opting for ‘icebox’ wines instead. This means they artificially freeze the grapes, extracting the same end product without fear of losing much or all of their crop. It also allows vineyards in warmer climates to compete in the ice wine arena. As a traditionalist, I’m inclined to disagree with the practice, but will leave it to you to make up your own mind. It’s my feeling that wine production should remain as natural as possible, and that ice wine is one of the benefits owed to growers and vinters who tough out the long and cold Canadian winter.
In either case, the grapes must be frozen before production can begin. This process freezes the water in the fruit, which means the sugars become highly concentrated for extraction. If local legends hold true, each frozen grape will yield a single drop of sugary juice. This Juice, while certainly sweet, should be well balanced with acidity to produce a quality ice wine. Not only must the grapes be picked while frozen, they must also be pressed at the same temperature. This means that harvesters often get the call to pick in the dead of night. They work like demons in the dark, and are a sight to behold come morning. These poor souls must pick carefully, so as not to inflict damage on the vines or the grapes, something which becomes increasingly difficult with frozen fingers. Once the grapes are off the vine, they are hurriedly pressed before the temperature rises. Higher sugar content results in a slower fermentation. This, combined with lower yields and the obvious difficulty in processing is what drives the price of ice wines up.
Don’t let ice wine’s reputation as a dessert wine limit you in your use of it. As I mentioned earlier, ice wine ought to be well balanced and possess all the characteristics of the grapes used in its production. This means that it can, in fact, make a lovely aperitif, or accompany dishes all through a well crafted menu. In particular, depending, of course, on the varietal, ice wine can be paired nicely with cheeses and fruits, nuts, fresh baked breads and sweeter meats such as pork. Personally, I often enjoy a few ounces of Riesling ice wine with charcuterie plates or my favorite, foie gras terrine. If you do decide to pair an ice wine with dessert, be careful to choose a dish that does not overwhelm the wine. A common mistake is made when the dessert is sweeter than the wine, and can be avoided by allowing natural fruit flavors to rule instead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Sanders is a professional chef and freelance writer who lives and works in British Columbia. She received her culinary training in Vancouver, and went on to work in some of the city’s finest establishments as a cook and pastry chef. Her primary area of expertise is dessert, but she has a deep affinity for any food that can be consumed with a good glass of wine.
After several years of intense restaurant work, Katie decided to pursue a quieter life in the country. She now lives and works in Canada’s most prestigious wine country, the Central Okanagan.