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Harvest grapes in winter? Yes, for ice wine

By Catherine Rabb
Catherine Rabb
Catherine Rabb is co-owner of Fenwick's and an associate instructor at Johnson & Wales University.

After such an unusually cold winter, including the great snow-and-ice event, wine drinkers may find themselves thinking about what happens when grapes freeze.

There is a special style of wine produced in cold weather, in which the grapes remain on the vine long into winter, with harvest happening sometimes as late as February.

As the grapes remain on the vine, their fruit flavors, sugars and acids concentrate. The wines made from these are prized around the world, sometimes called liquid gold.

Ice wine (eiswein in Germany and Austria, and in Canada the single word icewine), is a dessert-style wine made in tiny quantities in just a few places in the world where the right blend of ripe grapes and reliably cold weather happen.

The tiny, intensely sweet grapes are picked while frozen, and the tiny amount of ultra-sweet juice is made into a luscious wine with clean fruit flavors supported by a vibrant acidity.

Ice-wine production is a labor of love, with only a tiny portion of grapes actually making it to harvest. The sweet grapes are extremely attractive to any hungry bird or other animal. Or they might get blown away or lack the quality desired. The weather doesn’t always get reliably cold or cold at the right time.

It’s no wonder that these wines may be pricey. A good bottle, though, is a way of celebrating what nature can deliver, and how humans can celebrate it.

Germany’s eiswein is probably the most famous, and perhaps the most delicate in style with a purity of fruit and underlying complexity that aficionados savor. Canada makes a great deal of ice wine, in both British Columbia and Ontario. The legal requirements in Canada are challenging, with temperature and ripeness requirements that must be met. But reliable temperatures, warm enough to get the grapes very ripe to start but cold enough almost every year to create icewine, make Canada the world’s largest producer.

In the U.S., the Finger Lake region of New York makes gorgeous examples of ripe but racy-style dessert wine.

Of course, there is a process where grapes can be artificially frozen, without being subjected to the vagaries of nature. Called cryogenic extraction, commercial freezers at extremely cold temperatures are used. This technique allows the producer to control harvest timing for optimum quality, and saves labor costs, typically allowing a more affordable product to be delivered.

The process is not permitted in Germany, and in the U.S. and Canada wine made by freezing the grapes commercially must be called something besides ice wine, usually something like Iced or Ice Box wine.

Typically packed in small bottles and served in tiny portions with a special cheese, or with dessert, ice wines are special-occasion wines that are a special celebration of winter. They’re a treat every wine lover must experience.

Catherine Rabb is co-owner of Fenwick’s and a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. Email: Catherine.rabb@jwu.edu.
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