Ever heard of icewine? It may not be what you think, but this wine is a worthwhile exploratory journey for the curious wine lover, and one that many non-wine lovers will find enjoyable.
Icewine gets its name literally. The beauty and character of what makes icewine unique lies in its creation. Left on the vines through freezing temperatures and picked frozen, icewine, once fermented and bottled, is a special treat worth seeking.
One of the world’s only true kosher icewines is currently produced by Tzafona Cellars in the Niagara Peninsula, the region responsible for 90 percent of all icewine in the world. The Niagara Peninsula is sandwiched by Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Ontario and New York State, a cool little geographical oddity which allows for this viticultural microclimate and distinctive terroir. It’s also affected by the Niagara Escarpment, a 650-mile-long limestone ridge.
Tzafona (Hebrew for northward) Cellars is a partnership between winemaker Avraham Gislason and entrepreneur Toby Berkel.
A rabbi, Gislason owned a shop where he made wine and beer from individual small batches. Gislason and Berkel realized that there was nothing kosher being produced from one of Canada’s top wine-producing regions in the Niagara Peninsula, and decided to fill this void.
Now, icewine cannot be made just anywhere (though some use various techniques to replicate the process mechanically), while Tzafona’s location is perfect for this difficult venture.
“We can reliably make icewine every year, and as far as I can tell, that seems to be unique,” says Gislason. “We have the perfect climate in the Niagara Peninsula that is five degrees warmer than the rest of Canada because it’s surrounded by the Great Lakes and is the southernmost point in Canada.”
What makes icewine’s process so different, according to Gislason, is that “it is produced in this amazing way where the grapes are left on the vine until somewhere around December or January, and they have to have nets covering them so the birds don’t get them. What happens during that period of late fall and early winter is that the grapes go through a process of freezing to a certain level, then thawing, freezing and again thawing, which has this tremendous effect on the structure of the grape. Water is lost, flavors and sugars are concentrated, and then the grapes have to be picked when the temperature is at least the level of nine degrees celsius (15 degrees F).
“At that point,” he continues, “the grapes are harvested and then pressed while still at that temperature in large hydraulic basket presses. The juice comes out very slowly, and the juice has a colder freezing point than water. So as we’re pressing at this temperature, the juice flows out like a thicker, more syrupy, more viscous juice — almost like a nectar — very, very sweet and up to 40 Brix and up to 42 sometimes. [Author’s Note: Brix is a calculation of sugar content, and most table wine grapes get harvested at between 21-25 Brix.] The water remains behind in the press like an unbreakable, solid chunk of ice, and so we leave the water behind and we pull out this concentrated, sweet, incredibly aromatic nectar — unbelievable to smell it — and this is what we use to then ferment and create the icewine. There’s no added sugar, and it’s all completely natural, grape sweetness, concentrated flavors, and that’s what makes it so amazing.”
Gislason’s natural passion for winemaking blends with his deep Judaism and connection to God.
“What makes icewine so amazing,” he says, “are the effects of Mother Nature, or as we know it, the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe], and the grapes sitting on the vine still attached and freezing, and then falling and being exposed to the elements, and everything that goes along with that with that natural process which is not really replicable in a serious way.”
The entire eiswein process, as the Germans dubbed it upon its 18th-century creation, is tricky (handpicking in freezing temps), slow (fermentation takes months), and inefficient (icewine requires four to five times as many grapes as other wines!).
But the payoff can be special.
Tzafona Cellars has produced two icewines, one from the winter-hardy, white hybrid varietal Vidal, and one from Cabernet Sauvignon. As I sat, socially-distanced and outdoors from two friends who oddly show up any time I’m tasting wine for a column, I thought we might try something different, and so grabbed the 2016 Tzafona Cellars Vidal IceWine ($28, 375 ml, kosherwine.com).
Dark and golden in the glass, viscous and oily, one deep sniff reveals incredibly powerful aromatics of honey, honeysuckles, lychee, tropical fruits. The wine thickly coats your palate with a wonderful balance of acid, apricot, and sweet honeyed fruits.
This wonderful icewine is to be sipped, preferably cold. While icewine might easily settle into the “dessert wine” category, my suggestion is that this treat be perfectly sipped as you would a fine scotch, or with a particularly rich appetizer, or perhaps alone, as dessert itself.
Dr. Kenneth Friedman is a Baltimore-born kosher wine aficionado/connoisseur. He is known for his unsolicited wine advice and runs many local kosher wine tastings.