Wine farmers are a tough bunch.
When their climate is warm and sunny, they make warm, sunny wines like California Chardonnay or Australian Shiraz. And when the weather turns frigid, they make ice - ice wine that is.
Cabernet Franc Icewine
Niagra Peninsula, Canada
• Suggested retail and availability: About $90 (375 ml) at wine shops (distributed by Southern Wines & Spirits, Bolingbrook)
Sturdy Vidal is the standard grape for ice wine (also spelled icewine or eiswein); racy Riesling is for purists. Fragile Cabernet Franc is most rare. As part of the Bordeaux blend (along with cousin Cabernet Sauvignon), Franc adds peppery perfume to France's great reds. As icewine, lush aromas of red rose and extra-ripe strawberries beckon a fruit bowl full of dark berries, mocha and a deep spiciness akin to mincemeat. Serve slightly chilled in 3-ish ounce portions as dessert in itself or, to inspire an eruption of sensation, with chocolate, mocha or coffee desserts.
Imagine yourself as a grape grower. Now imagine your entire crop freezing on the vine to glistening pellets in a flash frost. How far would you go to save your grapes and your family's livelihood?
In 1794 - the legend goes - a family of Franconian monks faced this dilemma. Rather than pitch the crop or devalue it to cattle feed, they raced to harvest. Back in the shivering winery, they pressed frozen grapes and waited. One drop, then another drop, each grape released an elixir of concentrated sugar and acid, liberated from the grape's water, which remained as icy crystals in the press.
When vinified, the resulting eiswein tasted intensely fruity, richly acidic and divinely sweet. A miracle!
Two centuries hence, many ice wine makers turn to technology rather than Mother Nature, artificially freezing grapes. After all, the longer grapes hang on the vine, the more vulnerable they are to wind, mold and hungry birds that rip through extra-sweet vineyards faster than kindergartners through a candy shop.
And even though a cold snap in Germany's 2009 vintage has inspired predictions of greatness, there's only one climate that ice wine makers (and the 2010 Olympic Committee) rely on for icy temperatures: Canada.
In Canada's Niagra Peninsula, producers such as Inniskillin (with a range of varieties, beginning about $65 per 375 ml bottle) and Jackson-Triggs (about $25 per 187 ml) practice extreme wine making year-in and year-out, covering entire vineyards with nets against birds, waiting until the January freeze, then enlisting loyal (crazy?) friends and workers to harvest through the dark of night for maximum coldness, all so you can win the affection of your valentine sweetheart, or toast the Olympians with the liquid gold of ice wine.
•Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.