THE bitter cold Shanghai evenings are upon us with a vengeance and many people are rushing home for a warm drink. However, one of my favorite drinks anytime of the year including the winter is ice wine, also referred to as eiswein in German. True ice wines are some of the most rare and prized nectars in the wine world because they’re difficult to make and when properly done they’re also one of the world’s great wines.
Based on the writings of Roman philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder and Roman poet Marcus Valerins Martialis there’s some evidence that ice wines were made 2,000 years ago near the Italian Alps.
This laborious and exacting way of making sweet wines seems to have been lost until the late 18th century when evidence indicates the first post-Roman Empire ice wine was made in Franconia, Germany.
In the 19th century, vintages of ice wine in Germany were still the exception rather than the rule with only 19 documented winemakers made ice wine. Technical advances in the 20th century enabling winegrowers and winemakers to have more frequent vintages but making ice wine remains difficult.
In the wine world there are different ways to make quality sweet wines. One method is to wait late into the year until the grapes are very ripe before harvesting. These wines are called late harvest wines. In some parts of the world, most notably in Sauternes in Bordeaux and Tokaji in Hungary, the ripe grapes become affected by Botrytis Cinerea and shrivel up, thereby concentrating the juices and sugar.
These wines are often affectionately called noble rot wines. In warmer climates picked grapes are left to dry in special rooms or out in the sun where they turn into raisins. Two excellent examples are Vin Santo wines from Tuscany and other parts of Italy and Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez Sherries from Jerez, Spain.
Ice wines are different as the grapes must freeze on the vine prior to harvest. The picking of the grapes usually happens after the first frost and the harvesting should be completed quickly before the grapes have time to defrost. It’s important to remember true ice wines are always naturally frozen on the vine.
The frozen grapes are then expeditiously transported from the vineyards to the winery and pressed with the resulting highly concentrated juice used to make ice wines. This is one of the hardest, most exacting and lowest yield wines to make but the resulting liquid is exquisitely perfumed, textured and flavorful.
There are over a dozen countries that make ice wines but the major producers are Canada, Germany and Austria. In Germany and Austria most ice wines are made from the noble Riesling variety and because of their rareness both in terms of vintages and quantity they are among the most expensive wines in the world. Since the year 2000, vintages have in fact become less consistent — most likely due to global warming.
About two decades ago Canada overtook Germany to become the world’s largest producer of ice wines, in no small part because of its consistently cold winters. Ice wine is now made in all the major Canadian winemaking regions including Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and British Columbia.
The Niagara Peninsula in Ontario in particular is considered an ideal region for making ice wine. Canadian ice wine makers also tend to be more adventurous using a wide range of varieties including the white varieties Riesling, Vidal, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Semillon as well as red varieties like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of the charms of ice wines is that depending on the region, variety, vintage and producer there are a range of different styles, flavors and aromas. Common aromas and flavors may include honey, stone fruit, dried apricot, sweet citrus, lychee, mango and pineapple. Ice wines made from red varieties also exhibit lovely strawberry and other red fruit sensations.
The best ice wines, as is the case with all great sweet wines, not only feature formidable aromas and intense sweetness but also have good acidity.
This acidic backbone is needed to balance the sweetness and provide freshness on the palate. Lesser sweet wines are sweet from front palate to finish and leave the mouth overly saturated with sticky sweetness. The good acidity in ice wines also makes them food friendly.
Pairing with food
It’s little surprised ice wines pair beautifully with many popular desserts including fresh and preserved fruits, cakes, puddings and ice cream. They are equally pleasing with snacks like nuts and raisins, as well as dark chocolate. But what may amaze some wine lovers is how well ice wines pair with other foods.
One of my favorite combinations is ice wine served with cold or sautéed duck or goose liver. The richness of the liver is matched by the fruity sweetness of the wine while the acidity cleanses the palate leaving one eager for the next bite.
Another beautiful partner is strong cheeses including all types of blue cheeses, goat cheeses, as well as aged cheddars and Parmesan.
A classic Chinese dish that works great with ice wines is stinky tofu. Just like with stinky cheeses the sweet wine complements the pungency of the tofu and assuages the palate. Highly spiced Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan dishes are all enhanced by a good ice wine.
So this winter when you’re enjoying your favorite Western or Chinese dishes don’t forget to enjoy a glass or two of wonderful ice wine. The combination will be truly synergistic.