One Christmas I visited friends in Eltville, a town along the Rhine near Frankfurt known for its sweet and sparkling white wines—the kind that can be made in cool, damp climates. Like nearly everyone else in town, the family made a bit of wine as an expensive hobby. With nine children and their friends swirling in daily constellations, my friends inevitably fell behind on various chores. Still, I was surprised to see grapes hanging on the few trellised vines—not merely forgotten stalks but big bunches that had turned brown with the cold. Why waste the better part of a year's work?, I wondered. Winemaking equipment was sitting outside, barely protected. "We're going to make ice wine," one of the children told me. "After New Year's. Once it gets really cold."
When, a few years later, I became a devoted follower of sweet wines, I learned that ice wine offers the sweetest, most intense concentration of grape flavor available in a bottle. It is one of the most peculiar, troublesome wines in the world to make. It also occupies a niche where the New World can successfully compete with the Old, by capitalizing on local climates and native grapes instead of fighting them.
Efforts to make drinkable wine in America were vexed from the start. Thomas Jefferson famously failed to coax European grapes into thriving at Monticello. Early explorers of the Americas took many fruits and vegetables to Europe, with such success that centuries later settlers imported them back (think of the tomato and the potato), but grapes were different. Jefferson and others who hoped to make wine in the Colonies dismissed as "foxy" the musty scent of native varieties such as Concord and Catawba, familiar to schoolchildren as the flavor of grape jelly and to teenagers sneaking Manischewitz and Cold Duck. The English authority Jancis Robinson likens it to "a wet, cheap fur coat."
Only after the turn of the twentieth century, when Italian immigrants recognized that European wine grapes could thrive in the Mediterranean-like climate of northern California, and only after their descendants decided to go head-to-head with the great winemakers of France and Italy, did the wine world take the New World seriously. A few decades later another group of immigrants—Germans and Austrians in Ontario—saw that they, too, could turn a climate similar to the one they had left behind to their advantage.
Canada has lately taken to ice wine the way Napa and Sonoma did to cabernet, and for the same reason—ice wine has brought international prizes and big increases in sales to the Canadian wine industry, which labored for decades with little recognition. Canadian winemakers have re-animated a wine that had practically disappeared in its Northern European birthplace—and without denaturing it, as attempts to re-create foods and wines far from their homes often do.
I wish I'd been able to see my German friends make ice wine. Picking and crushing the grapes are activities as reminiscent of a folk tale as the Christmas traditions the family lovingly observes. The grapes must be picked on several of the coldest nights of the year, preferably by moonlight, and pressed outdoors before the rising sun can begin to melt them.
The Niagara Peninsula, which runs along Lake Ontario a few miles north of the U.S. border, is suited to cool-climate grapes. The lake stores summer heat and releases it into the cooling autumn air, permitting long ripening. It was in this area that a series of French hybrid grapes—so called because French viticulturists crossed Southern European varieties with native American ones that could withstand disease and the cold—were developed at the turn of the century. White grapes proved more successful than red, and the most highly adaptable variety was Vidal, a cross including the popular wine grape known in Italy as Trebbiano and in France as Ugni blanc. Vidal grapes are relatively high in acidity, a characteristic of most cool-climate white grapes and a quality needed to balance the sweetness of ice wine. They also have extremely tough skins—another necessity, to survive the cycle of freezing and thawing that grapes for ice wine must undergo.
Several winemakers on the peninsula, each with a German or an Austrian background, decided in the early 1980s that they were growing the right grapes and working in just the right conditions to produce ice wine. Maybe they could make a product to rival that of their homelands. Maybe they could make a better one. For a while they talked about the possibility, almost as a joke—something to do if the seemingly endless work in their young wineries ever left them with any time. Then, in 1983, they decided to leave a few rows of Vidal and Riesling vines unpicked in each of their vineyards and see them through several hard frosts. The harvest was over by late October, as usual, and the first hard frosts were due in early December—mild Novembers and suddenly cold Decembers are typical of the peninsula, and a good augury for ice wine. Then, on December 1, one of the winemakers lost his entire crop to starlings.
"I was in Rochester, at a wine conference," Karl Kaiser told me when I visited the peninsula last winter. "I got back at two, and there were no grapes. I asked our vineyard fellow, 'What happened? Did you guys pick it?'" Lesson One, then, was to net the vines soon after the October harvest.