Born in 18th century Germany, ice wine is a delicately sweet dessert wine that will mollify even the heartiest meals. It's subtle, yet complex. It's also very tough to make. Unlike most winemakers, who pick their grapes in the balmy weeks of late summer and early fall, ice winemakers wait until the middle of winter, when temperatures have settled in the teens.
Then, in the middle of the night, hardy pickers venture out into their vineyards to hand-harvest the frozen clusters. The grapes are rushed back to the winery where they're carefully pressed to separate their ultra-concentrated juice from the ice crystals. The juice is slowly fermented—for as long as four months—until it's ready for consumption.
This complicated process results in a pricey product. The best German ice wine (or eiswein), from winemakers Robert Weill or C. von Schubert Maximum Grünhauser, will run you hundreds of dollars for the traditional half-bottle—if you can find it. They're somewhat rare, because the Germans make it only in the coldest winters. But at Inniskillin winery in Ontario, Canada, they make it every year—because every winter in Ontario is cold. Last winter was so cold that Inniskillin winery harvested its grapes Dec. 2—the earliest harvest in 20 years.
The next time you're dining in style and looking for a sweet wine, ask for the Inniskillin 2002 Riesling Icewine ($52). It combines lychee nut and peach flavors with a racy mineral edge. It's great on its own at the end of the meal, but it also draws out the richness of foie gras or a creamy Camembert cheese. Even more extravagant is the Inniskillin 2002 Oak Aged Vidal Icewine (also $81). Golden in color, with a rich honey flavor and apricot and orange notes, it's a good match for a fruit tart or a crème brà»lée. If you don't have room for dessert, sip it by itself—it stands on its own just fine.
Contact: 888-466-4754; inniskillin.com
No ice wine on the list? There are close alternatives—other sweet wines, such as a California dessert wine, a Hungarian Tokay or a French Sauternes. All of these are late-harvest wines, which means their grapes are left on the vine to ripen into the late fall or early winter. Once they've developed unusually rich natural sugars—or in some cases a mold called Botrytis cinerea—the grapes are picked and carefully pressed and fermented. Moldy grapes produce some of the rarest, most celebrated wines in the world, like Chateau d'Yquem from Sauternes or Dolce from Napa Valley. These are sweet but not syrupy. You'll know a good late-harvest wine by its balance, honeyed texture and clean, bright finish.