When the subject of sweet wines comes up, many mistakenly think of sugared-up, high alcohol grocery store wine that your Aunt Edna might pull out of the back of the cabinet over the refrigerator and pour over ice cream. The truth is, there are many types of lovely sweet wines that are perfect as an aperitif, on their own, or as a pairing with a variety of foods and desserts.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he styles range from the Ports of Portugal, the Sherries of Spain, France’s Sauternes, Germany’s Rieslings, and Ice Wines from the colder climates of the grape growing regions. It’s the last style, Ice Wines, that come to mind as I scrape the ice off my windshield after the Jetstream delivers another Arctic express.
Ice wine is said to have been discovered in Germany after a winemaker, who left his vineyard during harvest, returned to find his vines had frozen with the grapes still intact. He picked them anyway, and, when crushing the grapes, he found that the frozen pulp that stayed with the skins contained ice crystals of water, but the free-run juice, or must, was loaded with residual sugar. This ultra-sweet must was fermented and the resulting wine produced a sweet wine with low alcohol and high acidity. Over the years, the practice became refined, and the art of making “Eiswein” in Germany and Austria now produces wines that are like the nectar of the gods. The balance between the acidity and the natural sweetness keeps the taste from being cloying and has a drying effect on the back of the pallet. Modern harvesting still involves hand picking the frozen grapes, both because of the need for a gentle hand in selecting the grapes, and because many of the vineyards are clinging to the steep hills and river banks that produce the finest grapes in Germany and Austria (too steep for machinery). By far the majority of the grapes are the Riesling varietal, although Ice Wine can come from Vidal, Gewurztraminer, and even Cabernet Franc. These grapes contain higher levels of acidity, keeping them refreshing and light on the pallet.
The high cost of Eiswein results from the intensive labor, and selective picking involved in harvesting the grapes, often carried out at night to keep the fruit frozen during its quick trip to the fermentation tanks. Couple that with the low yield of sugar-concentrated juice from the grapes and it becomes evident that it takes a lot to make a little amount of Eiswein. It is often sold for very high prices for a .375ml bottle, luckily sipping it in small glasses allows one to enjoy it in small amounts. Serve the wine slightly chilled on its own, or paired with desserts that are slightly less sweet than the wine. It also pairs wonderfully with soft and aged cheeses, such as triple cream Brie and Camembert, and also with foie gras.
Modern technology has allowed winemakers to shortcut the process and to produce similar styles in areas that don’t freeze. They can have a normal harvest, then blast-freeze the grapes to get the same effect. Sometimes these are called vin de glacière (ice box wine) to distinguish them from true Eiswein. The pricing of these wines is considerably less.
While it’s still hard to get me to give up my dry, red wine in the midst of winter, an Eiswein can be a sweet diversion that provides great satisfaction, especially when paired with the right foods. Get some advice from a local wine merchant on which types are available, and enjoy it with family and friends.