Icewine is winter’s gift to wine lovers. Here’s how it’s made: Instead of harvesting grapes in the fall, the grower leaves them on the vine to freeze, which forces most of the water outside of the grape in the form of ice. What’s left inside is a miniscule amount of semi-frozen, super-concentrated, super-sweet juice. When you apply normal winemaking techniques to these grapes, you get a honeyed, rich dessert wine — one of the great pleasures of after-dinner drinking.
Although the technique might seem like the wine equivalent of MacGyver’s resourceful, improvised solutions — “it’s so crazy it just might work!” — experts think that icewine was actually discovered accidentally, by frostbitten Germans in the 18th century.
These days, one of the best producers of icewine is right across the border in Canada, just a few miles from Niagara Falls. Inniskillin produces six icewines (along with seven regular table wines, which are not yet available in the U.S.), and the ones I recently tasted linger pleasantly in my memory, just like great wines should.
A key ingredient in any sweet wine is a deep reserve of acid, which prevents the sweetness from becoming heavy or cloying. Inniskillin has this down pat—all their wines have a subtle bite around the edges that keeps the sugar in check. Serving them cold (in dessert wine glasses if you have them, or in something smallish like a sherry glass) also helps keep the flavors in harmony. In wine as in life, balance is everything.
Inniskillin’s six icewines come from varietals you’ve heard of, plus some you haven’t. Vidal Blanc is pretty obscure—it’s a French-American hybrid, marrying tried-and-true Old World varieties with the heartier types native to North American soil. But this Canadian winery has turned it into the compelling Inniskillin Sparking Icewine Vidal 2003 ($75 for a 375ml half-bottle, the most common size for dessert wine). This elegant creation has a touch of effervescence to it, as well as luscious peach, lime, and toasted-bread flavors.
Traditionally, dessert wines are golden, so when you see the Inniskillin Icewine Cabernet Franc 2004 ($95) poured into a glass, its deep red color is a surprise. Even more shocking is the array of flavors that come pouring out: watermelon, pomegranate, spiced apples, and berries with cream, all harmoniously playing off one another. If you serve this wine at a dinner party, whether to accompany a dessert or on its own, the response will be quiet awe.
Considering its origins in Germany (where it’s called Eiswein), the first icewine was probably a Riesling. So it makes sense that Inniskillin Icewine Riesling 2005 ($75) would build on that tradition. It has a note of “petrol” on the nose (sounds weird, tastes great) that is common to this grape, and a good bit of subtlety on the palate. The lychee-peachy tastes are just what you’d hope for, but the body is a bit lighter than the other two bottles I’ve mentioned. That makes it a good beginning point for anyone who doesn’t have experience with icewines but still wants to warm up with a cold glass of one in the last days of winter.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.