Cold as Eis
i have had a sweet tooth since i was a little kid. despite working briefly as a waiter at the cloying upper east side dessert destination serendipity (so many bar mitvahs, so little patience), my cravings for the sweet stuff have not been deterred. if anything, they've evolved.
in general, dessert wine gets a bad rap. most people dismiss dessert wines as sissy drinks or unsophisticated, simplistic backwash. i couldn't disagree more, especially when it comes to the super rare and ultra-expensive icewine (or eiswein, if it's german).
the reason icewine flavors are so intense-and the cause for its extreme price-has to do with how it's made. in germany, the growing areas tend to be relatively cool, so the growing season is longer. the germans classify their grapes for wine by how late into the harvest they are picked. a kabinett is a wine made from grapes picked at normal harvest time. if it's a good year and the grapes are ripening slower, then a spatelese (literally meaning "late harvest"), an auslese ("select harvest"), or even a beerenauslese or trockenbeerenauslese ("select berry harvest" and "dried select berry harvest," respectively) is made. while these are a mouthful, and extremely rare, even rarer is the once-a-decade jewel in the crown of any riesling grower: eiswein.
if the grapes are allowed to stay on the vines all the way to the first frost, eiswein can be made. the traditional way to harvest these berries is before dawn, after the first frost, with gloved hands, so as not to warm the chilled berries with your body heat. the grapes are then crushed before they have a chance to thaw and the water rises to the top in the form of ice. the ice is removed, and the tiny amount of remaining juice left is what's made into wine.
what does this incredibly complex process yield? one of the most seductive, complex and nuanced beverages you will ever have the privilege of sipping-if you can afford it, that is. often packaged in half-bottles, new vintages of german eiswein often average around $150 to $200.
so how can a normal person get a hold of some of this amazing stuff? one solution is to go north. canada, while not the ideal climate for most winemaking grapes, is the perfect place to produce icewine. there are dozens of reputable producers of icewine from our northern brethren, but my favorite has to be inniskillin riesling icewine ($69.95 @ sherry-lehmann, 505 park ave. near 60th, 212-838-7500). at half the price of what you would pay for the same quality from germany, you get the complex flavors of honey, overripe peach, wildflowers and bracing citrus. if you're looking for something even less expensive, inniskillin makes an icewine from the north american grape vidal that is not as complex, but still delicious and intense.
another way to get the icewine flavor without the cost is by buying what is known as a "freezer wine." these wines are made by freezing the grapes after they've been picked, then taking away the excess water and fermenting from there. while most freezer wines are vastly inferior in taste, and many purists regularly lobby for them to be outlawed outright, there are a few worth trying. the bonny doon muscat vin de glaciere ($17 @ first avenue wines and amp; spirits, 383 first ave. at 22nd st., 212-673-3600) has all the sweet honeyed stone fruit you could ever ask for in an icewine, plus a sucker punch of spice on the finish.
don't let the heavy price tag of german eiswein put a chill on your dessert plans. there are plenty of alternatives well within your monetary means that will keep you in sweet wine bliss indefinitely.
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