My wife grew up in a small town in Germany known for wine growing. It was not a famous region like the Rheingau or the Mosel, but a picturesque one just south of the border between Swabia and Franconia. Among her most vivid childhood memories is helping out during the grape harvest each fall, when every able-bodied Bürger was expected to pitch in. She loved the sociability of the event, to say nothing of the thick slices of farmer's bread slathered with sweet butter or creamy liverwurst handed out to fortify the hardworking pickers. What she hated was gathering the late-harvest Spätlese grapes at the end of November. She still winces at the memory of the stinging, freezing hands she got in the cold air, because grapes for Spätlese and other sweet German wines must be left on the vine for weeks after the main picking to increase their concentration of acidity and sugar.
Luckily she didn't live farther north in Franconia where, tradition has it, one of the world's most extraordinary viticultural phenomena—the ultimate late-harvest wine, Eiswein—first occurred. (As its sound-alike translation, "ice wine," indicates, Eiswein is made from frozen grapes.) Legend has it that, in 1794, the sudden onset of an early winter and accompanying drop in temperatures left dumbfounded villagers staring at vines dripping with icy fruit transformed to the consistency of marble. Like other such serendipitous oenological discoveries (such as the lucky Benedictine monk Dom Perignon's unexpectedly fizzy French white wine a century earlier), some enterprising soul is said to have suggested that they process the grapes to see what would happen, since there was nothing to lose anyway.
As it turned out, a minute amount of thick golden liquid emerged from each of those stone-cold berries, creating an intense and concentrated juice. This irreducible essence of the grape would later become a wine that rivals the great Sauternes of France.
There's no doubt that ice wine is more fashionable now than at any time in living memory. But it would be centuries before the world at large would recognize the importance of that Franconian discovery. Back in the late '60s, when I first began to appreciate fine wines, the most exalted of Premier Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux didn't cost much more than the top-tier German late-harvest whites, the legendary Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. But Eiswein, produced in even more minuscule quantities than those multisyllabic mouthfuls, was off my radar in those student years, partly because so little of it ever reached these shores. To this day its high cost remains perfectly justified, considering how labor-intensive it is for such a tiny output, with some top German estates eking out a mere 25 or 30 cases of half-bottles per vintage. In fact, ice wines have become the beluga caviar of the sweet-wine world and are priced accordingly. But in times when thousand-dollar-a-bottle California cult wines are no big deal, the best Eiswein can seem like a downright bargain, even at over a hundred dollars a half-bottle.
The availability of European Eiswein is, however, unpredictable, as weather conditions in Germany and Austria—where winters never get as consistently cold as in Canada—provide the right conditions for Eiswein only once every three or four years. And there's never a guarantee of when that might happen. Today, industry regulations in Germany and Canada (the world's other premier ice wine region) stipulate that fruit for ice wine must be picked when the temperature is eight degrees below zero Centigrade (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit) or colder. That's because the dissolved sugar in these ultra-late-harvest grapes lowers their freezing point to well below that of water. When finally harvested, the shriveled pickings are quickly pressed while still frozen. (To sustain that same character, the finished wine should be served at 43 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.)
What makes Eiswein so attractive is a balancing act between high sugar and high acidity, giving it a depth and complexity found only among the finest Sauternes or vintage Madeiras, and it's far more complex than a nice but undemanding dessert wine like Beaumes-de-Venise. Still, many Americans, even sophisticated vinoculturists, harbor a fear of sweetness in wine. They equate it with either cheap plonk (goosed up with sugar to cover deficiencies) or fortified grandmotherly wines such as cream sherries.
A pity, because Eiswein works surprisingly well with a number of foods. And not only the last course. Like Sauterne it goes beautifully with foie gras and blue cheeses (though I like it with creamier French Roquefort rather than Stilton, which I still favor with port or Madeira). Eiswein is also delicious with fruit desserts that echo its characteristic apricot, nectarine, and peach notes. But surprisingly, it also works with tropical fruit like mango, passionfruit, and pineapple. A tart made from any of these would be a superb accompaniment, but so would something as simple as an almond-flour pound cake, langue de chat, or sablé cookies. Some prefer Eiswein on its own as the dessert itself.
Happily, the majority of German and Canadian ice wines come in 375-ml half-bottles, perfect for consuming at a sitting among a small circle of friends. Because they are so intense one doesn't want to drink too much at one time. And since they'll most likely be poured at the end of a meal in which other wines have been generously offered, a little goes a long way. Thankfully, ice wines are unusually long-lasting for whites, so there's no rush to consume them. Fifteen years is not at all unusual—Barbara Müller-Rundquist of the Dr. H. Thanisch winery in the Mosel recently sampled her estate's legendary 1959 Eiswein and pronounced it marvelous.
The justly praised 2001 wines, which were always in limited supply, have almost entirely sold out. Most aficionados believe this was the greatest German vintage for all varietals since 1971 (and yes, that includes those from '76) A harvest of exceptional quality plus just the right winter temperatures for Eiswein came together with pinpoint precision in 2001 (or, more accurately, 2001-2; the Eiswein harvest typically extends into the first months of the following year).
Unlike the comparably stupendous 2000 Bordeaux, many of which won't mature for years (especially the big-gun Premiers Grands Crus Classés), 2001 bottlings of Eiswein are ready now. When you choose to uncork them is a matter of personal taste, but I prefer Eiswein on the young side. I think it maximizes the fruity, flowery character. Plenty big to begin with, these wines become progressively darker, more honeyed and jammy as they age. I feel they lose that youthful sprightliness that keeps the sweetness from becoming too dominant. The 2001 J. & H.A. Strub Rheinhessen Niersteiner Paterberg is already so rich and thick in its infancy one can easily imagine it attaining the consistency of toffee syrup.
The globalization of winemaking has led to some ill-conceived attempts at mimicking site-specific wines elsewhere in the world, with blatant disregard for the inimitable terroir that ties a grape to its soil. There have been successes, like the zippy Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and lush Shirazes of Australia. But though numerous ice wines are now being turned out in California, Oregon, Washington, and New Zealand to meet the demands of this burgeoning niche market, they don't begin to approach German and eastern Canadian versions.
Why? Because the Pacific Rim never gets cold enough for grapes to freeze on the vine, so the grapes are harvested and the fruit glacified artificially. This so-called cryoextraction—a term that makes me think, uncomfortably, of poor Ted Williams—cannot create the subtle definition of an ice wine made in the old-fashioned way. I cringed when I read the chilling slogan on the label of one moderately priced California ice wine: FROM THE VINE TO THE FREEZER.
The most successful of all such New World transplants are the ice wines of eastern Canada, where they started to be made only three decades ago. Though notably different from their European counterparts—Canada's Ontario ice wines tend to be more honeyed than the fruitier Old World originals—they are unquestionably the best produced outside Germany, thanks to the exacting standards imposed and enforced by Canada's Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).
Their success is due to several factors. Some of the best Canadian ice wine makers are European expatriates. Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin, on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, was born and got his early training in Austria. Walter Schmoranz of Pelee Island Winery, which is improbably afloat in the middle of Lake Erie, emigrated from Germany's Rheingau. These exacting Kellermeisters brought their extensive knowledge of the Continental Eiswein tradition with them, determined to do things right.
With the typical zeal of real perfectionists, they matched the German standard of picking grapes only when the temperature reaches minus eight degrees Celsius, often at the ungodly hours of 4:00 to 6:00 a.m., to ensure that the fruit remains fully frozen until it hits the press. And because the hydrofoil boat that ferries tourists to Pelee Island in the summertime doesn't go out during the winter, pickers are airlifted in by small airplanes to endure their bone-chilling labors. I'd say that my Old World wine-picking wife got off pretty easy.
I prefer Eiswein on the young side, to maximize the fruity, flowery character. Plenty big to begin with, these wines become progressively darker, more honeyed and jammy as they age.
Several celebrated German Eiswein producers—including Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster, and Robert Weil—are thoroughly dependable year in and year out. Here are some other labels, including a few lesser-known ones I'm especially enthusiastic about, now available at retail. (All are 375-ml half-bottles unless otherwise noted.)
2001 Herbert Messmer Pfalz Burrweiler Schlossgarten
Mesmerizing! This is a gorgeously shaped, silky-smooth classic with an expansive apricot tang. It goes very well with fruit desserts, but it's so well-mannered I can also imagine it with the earliest, tenderest soft-shell crabs of the season. $90.
2001 Inniskillin Ice Wine Niagara Peninsula
Canadian ice wine at its finest. Stately, perfectly balanced, with tart citrus flavors that rein in the sweetness, all ending in a big, honeyed finish. A textbook demonstration of how the New World can take a great European wine tradition and make it all its own. $80.
2001 Kerpen Mosel-Saar-Rüwer Bernkasteler Bratenhöfchen
Martin Kerpen, maker of some of the Mosel's most elegant recent wines, comes through again with this seductive winner. Like his other wines, it needs more aging than comparable Eiswein, so cellar for three to five years. $75.
2001 Pelee Island Winery
I shy away from ice wine bargains, as you usually get what you pay for. But this Canadian gem made from Vidal Blanc grapes is a rare bargain, plus a good way to decide whether you want to move up to pricier Eiswein labels. Apricot and peach notes predominate. $40.
2001 J. & H.A. Strub Rheinhessen Niersteiner Paterberg
Huge, densely concentrated, with a lingering finish, this approaches sensory overload. It's so rich that I'd go easy on the food—serve the best butter biscuits you can find, and defer your senses to this blockbuster. $150 (500 ml).
2001 Max Ferd. Richter Mosel-Saar-Rüwer Müllheimer Helenenkloster
This fiesta of tropical fruit notes—mango, passionfruit, and pineapple—is nonetheless suavely integrated. Big body, big finish, very small production (only 30 cases), so pounce if you find it. $200.
2002 Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch Müller-Burggraef Mosel-Saar-Rüwer Berncasteler Doctor
From one of the Mosel's most prestigious makers, this fragrant Eiswein captures the essence of ripe pineapple. Lush but not overpowering. Best enjoyed on its own. $125.
Martin Filler wrote about Chateau Mouton Rothschild for the September issue of Departures.