Ice, Ice Baby

Guest post by Jennifer Rosen

To Americans, Canada is a parallel, frozen universe peopled with hockey players, polar bears and cheap prescription drugs. Wine-wise, it's not on the radar. Well, roll over Mondavi, and give Nanook a chance. Canada happens to be the Mecca for icewine.

Icewine, in case you haven't met it, ranks among the world's classiest dessert wines, more Chateauneuf de Popsicle than EskiMerlot pie. To learn what sets this sticky apart, let's pay a visit during harvest. Ah, harvest time! Indian summer! Sweat on the brow and dirt between the toes! Singing workers, laden with bushel baskets of bursting berries…oops, wrong harvest.

It's February on the Niagara peninsula; the thermometer's barely cresting zero. In the proto-dawn of 4:00am, shivering figures in fleece and down maneuver mittened fingers through rattling, lifeless vines. Frozen berries are whisked off as fast as they're picked, to be pressed before the sun comes up. 

Look closely: these are not your normal migrant workers. I see doctors, lawyers…media types! Someone with a degree from the Tom Sawyer School of Economics has people paying to come up here and freeze their assets off. Such is the prestige of this rare and expensive wine. What's going on?

There are several ways to turbo-charge a dessert wine. All involve dehydrating the grapes. You can dry them on mats in the sun, or let them shrivel on the vine. Very good little winemakers may get a visit from Botrytis Cinerea, the "noble rot" that turns healthy grapes into hairy, scary, little sugar bombs. Then there's icewine.

Repeated freezing and thawing changes the chemical composition of grapes. It concentrates sugars, acids and extracts and separates them from water, which freezes at a higher temperature. If the grapes are frozen solid enough, pressing will eject the water in crystalized shards, leaving behind the intense, aromatic goo from which ethereal wines are made. 

This fortuitous discovery was made in Germany, in 1794, when Hans Schnockleputter went on a Schnapps bender and forgot to harvest his grapes until January, by which time they had frozen solid. When worse comes to Gewurtz, bad wine is better than no wine, so he went ahead and vinified, stumbling, thus, upon the magic of eiswein.

The capricious German weather permits eiswein only a few times a decade. But in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment (a mystifying geologic word that sounds like it pushed back its chair in a hurry and left), the harmonic convergence of long, temperate growing season, followed by a predictable deep-freeze, makes icewine a reliable crop.

Which is not to say it's easy. Leaving grapes on the vine long into January is a risky and labor-intensive business. Rain and wind storms, bad mold and birds all vie to make off with the goods. Yields are extremely low; only 5% to 10% of a normal harvest. 

Hence, the price. But at least you know what you're getting. To distinguish themselves from unscrupulous Yankees who put grapes in the freezer and pass the results off as icewine, Canada formed the Vintners Quality Association (VQA), which tightly controls how, when, and at what temperature you can harvest. Scofflaws can't use the VQA appellation and will be put in the penalty box for icing. Right now you're probably thinking, "Hello! Icing results in a stoppage of play with the puck being dropped in the face-off circle near the goalie in the offending team's zone!" But that would be hockey and this is wine.

And extraordinary wine, indeed. What sets it apart from the cloying mass of syrup that defines some belly-button wines is its zingingly high, refreshing acidity. Along with exotic perfumes like papaya, passion fruit and ginger, you get this sweet-tart wake-up-call of fresh lemon and lime. And a texture like the heavy, hypnotic, flow inside a lava lamp.

Which just goes to show that where there's a will there's a wine, and we ought to look at a map more often.