December, what do we do with you? So full of merriment, yet so manic. Emotions bubble to the surface like corks, dredging up memories of past joys, pains, laughter and tears just in time for you to tie a nice bow around them all and start anew in January. And what better tumultuous time of year to give yourself a kick in the pants and try something new, like ice wine?
Contrary to what you might think, ice wine is not a Cabernet Sauvignon-flavored popsicle (although, that’s a great idea….)
but a unique winemaking technique that is made even more precious as it relies on Mother Nature’s thermostat. Many ice wines are made from Riesling, Vidal, and even Cabernet Franc grapes. Others can be made from white varietals like Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer. If made from white varietals, the colors fall in the yellow and amber range, but if made from reds, they get closer to a pink hue.
I got the skinny on ice wines from someone who should know: my new best friend and local Seattle wine diva, Jen Doak, General Manager of The Tasting Room. The Tasting Room is a collective of seven small Washington winemakers who came together in order to share costs and promotion and created a cozy tasting room near Pike Place Market. Jen is a wine industry veteran of ten years, having worked for the Washington Wine Commission before teaming up with Paul Beveridge (how perfect is that name?) to pull the cooperative together. Washington wines have enjoyed a flourish of attention and growth in recent years. “In 1997, Washington had about ninety seven wineries,” tells Jen, “but now we are at over five hundred.” The Tasting Room collective allows the seven winemakers to offer a broad stroke of different styles and the right mix so each winery gets the chance to shine. I recently attended a Savor Seattle tasting tour and our piece de resistance led us to The Tasting Room.
Since it is the holiday season, when sweets and treats abound – and since many ice wines hail from the Northwest and Canada, I picked Jen’s brain for the skinny. So what makes an ice wine, or as they say in German, Eiswein? Jen tells me this wine type is a bit obscure but “amazing and beautiful.” Basically, the grapes are left on the vine past harvest, which reduces their water content as their sugar content increases. This step is what leads to Late Harvest vintages. But if you let the grapes shrivel even more and freeze on the vine – this is where the persnickety Mother Nature gets to decide how perfect the conditions will be to freeze them JUST right – the water further depletes and creates essentially a natural concentrate during pressing. Turn that delicious sweetness into wine and – ouilà – you have ice wine. Because perfect conditions can be few and far between true ice wine is a rare treasure indeed. “Grapes for ice wine need frost,” says Jen, “so they tend to thrive in places like Idaho, Washington and Canada.”
Many fantastic dessert wines are made sweet by tricking Mother Nature and adding botrytis, or “noble rot”. This fungus draws water from the grapes, concentrating the sugars to produce more sweetness. True ice wine is created from a natural process that results in “clean” grapes - free from botrytis. The grapes are left to overripen and naturally lose water. Then they are left to shrivel and freeze on the vine to further lose water and increase in sugar content, to be picked at just the right moment for pressing.
Being a big believer in what this column often touts – try different pairings and see what you like – Jen advised the same when asked about what to eat with ice wines. “In general, I’m a fan of unconventional pairings. Try things out and see what you like especially since they make so many unique kinds of chocolates with crazy spices and stuff these days.” As a guideline, though, she’d go with something a little bit creamy and a little bit acidic (as in, something that makes you pucker.) She shared a fabulous dessert from her mom’s kitchen: Gather fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, any soft berries. and add a tablespoon of ice wine. Let the mixture macerate for a while. Separately, mix together mascarpone and whipped cream. Bake or buy a fresh pound cake and create a layered Neapolitan of sorts with berry mixture, cream mixture and cake and savor with a glass of your ice wine by your side. Mmmmmm. Jen also recommends you serve ice wine right from the fridge, unlike other chilled whites which you may want to leave out for thirty minutes prior to serving.
Washington boasts some fantastic ice and late harvest dessert wines. Apex Cellars does an ice wine with grapes from the Outlook Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. It’s made from Gewürztraminer grapes and is “gorgeous”, according to Jen. With 31.2% residual sugar to satisfy your inner 10-year old’s sugar craving, this golden, almost amber delight explodes peaches and honeysuckle on your tongue.
If the ice wines are a just this side of too sweet for you, try out some late harvest wines. Again, these are from the grapes harvested just one step before the freezing process takes place so there is less sugar content and a touch more water. Harlequin Wine Cellars offers a Late Harvest Chenin Blanc at a very reasonable $16 and only has a 15.6% residual sugar level. A bit more delicate than an ice wine, Jen recommends this as a very versatile dessert wine for those who want to start experimenting with such wines, or who even already enjoy Johannesburg Rieslings. “I absolutely love this one with sticky blue cheese. Just heaven,” Jen sighs dreamily.
Or, you can go for a Late Harvest Semillon, like Apex Cellars’. At just $9 a bottle, you can’t afford not to give it a go. Again, only 13.5% residual sugar as opposed to ice wine’s 30+% and simply sweet and yummy.
So go ahead and grab that plaid woolen throw, snuggle up to the fire and dive into a luscious ice wine or late harvest elixir. And take some time to enjoy the season. Happy Holidays!
Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists. She is based in Seattle.