Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Ice Wine is for All Seasons
Preisers’ Reserve: There are many wonderful late harvest wines produced in California, but the best we have recently sampled just may be the 2006 Ceja Vineyards Napa Valley Dulce Beso ($45/375 ml), the first dessert wine made by this wonderful winery. Quite crisp with an accent of tropicality, this viscous Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend coats your mouth with vanilla, apples, and spices that linger and linger (and linger).
Note: For the rest of this month Ceja will donate 5% of all direct to consumer sales to UNICEF to help the children that are at risk from the storms and flooding that recently hit southeastern Mexico. So buy some Dulce Beso (and perhaps other varietals as well) for the holidays, and help some kids as well.
It has been a perfect dinner. The restaurant’s ambiance is exceeded only by its superb cuisine, while each dish was paired with a wine that you carefully chose to compliment every subtle ingredient. All that is left is dessert, and a beverage to accompany a sweet confection, some artisan cheese, or a selection of fruit. Unfortunately, while wine with cheese or chocolate is an easy decision, it is a much misplaced choice among many. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to properly combine a wine’s nuances with chocolate, cheese, fruits, and most desserts. You simply run the risk of destroying a wine’s flavor, and perhaps undermining the reputation you earned during dinner as a brilliant pairer of wine and food.
Is there something to drink for dessert that is in vogue and can show off your knowledge and suavity? Chocolate martinis are so 90’s, and flavored vodkas are now all too common to be impressive. Fine Port can be outrageously expensive, inexpensive late harvest dessert wines are frequently too cloying, and too many restaurants fail to offer those late harvest wines that are excellent, yet manage to stay reasonably reasonably priced What to do, what to do? Fortunately, one solution to the problem would be to ask for the list of Ice Wines.
As the name suggests, this libation, no matter what people call it (sometimes also Eiswein, Ledova Vino, Vin de Glacier, or a myriad of combinations of Ice, Wine, Eis, or Wein), is a wine made from grapes which have frozen on the vine. As opposed to many late harvest wines world wide (such as Sauterne, Trockenbeerenauslese, or simply “late harvest”) where the grapes have been allowed to ripen and increase in sugar for so long that they shrivel and are sometimes affected by the noble rot botrytis, grapes for ice wines are usually healthy at the time of harvest, which many believe gives the fruit finer clarity, greater acid, and a more pronounced, vibrant taste. One thing is certain - there is usually a distinct difference in late harvest and ice wines. To us, it is primarily in the body. Ice wines are frequently more full through the middle of the mouth, while being able to maintain their crisp identity.
A relative newcomer to the wine scene, legend has it that in 1794 a German winemaker in Franconia found some of his grapes frozen by an early frost, and decided to press these grapes separate and apart from those not frozen. In the 21st century, almost all northern hemisphere wine producing countries make ice wines from fruit that is kept on the vine until the temperature falls to under 20 degrees F (usually late into December). When produced correctly and with care, these beautiful concoctions are now serious wines worthy of drinking at special occasions. This has not always been so, as until the early 90s, the quality of most ice wines had not yet risen to the fine levels seen today.
Good ice wines can be expensive for a number of most interesting reasons, though many are quite affordable for all. Grapes are mostly comprised of water, which is of course what freezes in this process. When a frozen grape is pressed, only the sweet juice is released from the grape while the water remains trapped in the skin in the form of ice crystals. As most of the grape itself is left behind, this means a great many grapes must be used for a relatively small amount of liquid (often an entire vine only makes a single 375 ml. bottle). This is why most ice wines are in fact sold in half bottles.
Most producers argue that grapes must be picked at the first frost, since a freeze/thaw/freeze cycle can impart strange flavors. Thus, harvesters may sometimes remain on call for many nights as the producer waits for the temperature to fall into the requisite numbers. Correspondingly, producers lay awake during many nights measuring temperatures before the right time arrives. When it does, the fruit must be completely gathered in the dark so the cold air is able to maintain the frozen state of the grape. Even as everyone waits for the night of reckoning, days refuse to allow time for rest. Employees must be at the ready to defend these long hanging grapes from animals and birds. Put all these factors together, and one understands why ice wines are sometimes costly.
Once the juice is finally pressed from the grapes, the wine-to-be typically undergoes weeks of fermentation, followed by a few months of barrel aging. What results is a thick liquid of beautiful golden to deep amber colors. Ice wine is properly consumed chilled in small dessert wine glasses, and many describe tastes of melon, apricot, mangos, peaches, and/or other sweet fruits.
As a rule, the regulation of wine in European countries is far more stringent than in the new world. As for ice wine in particular, the Canadians are ardent producers, and their government, through the Vintners Quality Alliance, has installed serious regulations. In the United States (and perhaps some other countries), however, some producers have found a way to make what they refer to as an ice wine without all the harvesting hassles described above. All they do is put grapes into a freezer. Can one distinguish an ice wine born in the freezer from one that matured in the vineyards? Perhaps many professionals can, but we aren’t so sure most people can actually identify one from the other with any regularity. After all, the process is the same and the water freezes in either location. Nevertheless, simulated ice wines do not command the price of the real thing, and when many are tasted together, the wines from the vineyards seem to stand out more often.
In North America and the rest of the ice wine making world, Riesling is a grape of choice for ice wines. Vidal is a staple in Canada and the northern U.S. as well, while Europe employs Blaufrankisch, Gruner Veltliner, Scheurebe, and Traminer.
So, it is now time to impress the table and choose an ice wine, or perhaps invite your friends or friend to your home where you routinely keep a stellar selection. Perhaps the best one we know is made by arguably the finest ice wine producer in the world – the Canadian company Inniskillin. Brilliant in its cranberry hue and lush flavors of raspberry and blackberry, the unique Cabernet Franc ($100 for 375 ml) combines the beauty of that grape with a medium to full body, and a finish that kills. But we can also recommend a less expensive alternative that will do the job - an American beauty for $35/half bottle from Casa Larga in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Their 2005 Fiori Delle Steele Vidal is deep gold and spins out honey and orange blossoms reminiscent of nectar. Though slightly cloying at the finish, that fact should not dissuade you from trying this wine at such a nice price.
We also highly recommend the 2005 Inniskillin Riesling ($80 for 375 ml), which offers a bit more tropical flavors than its competitors, while maintaining perfect balance and finish, and the 2005 Inniskillin Vidal ($60 for 375 ml), which is not so full, but flows seamlessly over the tongue and palate. Finally, look for the 2005 Lamoreaux Landing Vidal, Finger Lakes ($23 for 375 ml), which is a lovely entry level ice wine. It does exactly what it is supposed to do – compliment desserts of all types and leave you wanting more.
It is always fun to introduce others to something new. With ice wines, the novelty is accompanied by quality – an impressive and exciting combination.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.