Illustration by Kathryn Rathke.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when hearty Ontario winemakers (and others) freeze their—well, their somethings—off, in order to bring you bottles of the sweet, unctuous liquid known as ice wine. The stuff is impressively popular, Canada alone produces more than 1 million liters in a good year, and impressively sweet as well—Inniskillin’s acclaimed Riesling Icewine, to take one example, has 234 grams of sugar in each liter. Basically, that’s like an eight-ounce cup of coffee with 12 teaspoons of sugar in it.
Drinking something that sweet would be well beyond cloying were it not for ice wine’s intense acidity. In wine, the perception of sweetness is checked by higher acidity. The opposite holds true as well: If ice wines weren’t sweet, they’d be so tart you’d never want to drink them. In well-made ones, though, there’s balance, resulting in a kind of peachy-lychee-tropical-honeyed nectar that many people find utterly delicious.
Ice wine made in the US, Canada and Germany (where this practice started) has to come from grapes—classically Riesling, but winemakers also use Vidal, Cabernet Franc, Seyval Blanc and others—that have frozen naturally on the vine. Since the sugars do not freeze but the water in the grapes does, crushing the grapes yields tiny amounts of highly concentrated juice. This accounts for the finished wine’s sweet intensity, for the incredibly long time ice wine fermentation takes (months, as opposed to days); also, unfortunately, for its relatively high price.
You can get cheaper, quasi-ice wines made by cryoextraction (which essentially involves chucking the grapes into a freezer) or by flying to China and buying counterfeit ice wine (an alarming percentage of what’s on the shelves there is bogus), but for the real stuff, check out the four below. Ice wine is typically sold in half-bottles, but because of its over-the-top richness, a little goes a long way.
2006 Covey Run Yakima Valley Reserve Sémillon Ice Wine ($25) From the cold (at least in January) slopes of Washington state’s Red Mountain comes this viscous, peach-and-citrus-scented dessert wine.
2008 Jackson-Triggs Proprietors Reserve Vidal Icewine ($25) Lush tropical-fruit notes and a satiny texture make this a great introduction to the ice wine world.
2009 Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein ($48) Vividly flavorful but not heavy, this bottling comes from one of the top producers in Germany’s Mosel River Valley. Though pricey, it’s inexpensive for actual German ice wine, which often runs more than $100 a bottle.
2007 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine ($50) Canada’s most well-known (and one of its best) producers, Inniskillin makes ice wines from several different grape varieties. This rich, apricot-scented bottling, from the French hybrid variety Vidal, is the most affordable in the lineup.