The long wait that began from autumn finally comes to an end.
Amidst all apprehensions, the temperature finally hits -8 degree Celsius at night. The men sigh, rise from their benches, emerge out of the building and begin to shuffle unhurriedly towards the vineyard along an earth now plastered in thick wads of December snow.
The vineyard covered in net – to dissuade the birds of autumn to dip their beaks into grapes – is buffed to an ethereal white by the glimmering starlight. From the vines dangle drops of purple glass beads, grapes, huddled together by the powdery snow.
Look at the way the pickers tend the grape bunches in the soft light, as they ease them out of the vines with cutters, for they know inside every jewel in a fruit bunch lies a drop of liquid gold, a miniscule, coveted by oenophiles, the world over.
Once the icy pellets are brought home, they painstakingly press the icy fruit to separate the grape nectar from icy water.
Alas, good things are so little in the world, that you may bereave at the low yield. Still do not grieve my Bacchanalian, for at the end what you have at hand is the quintessence of grape, the nectar of gods, a haiku in the world of poetry.
This is the story of ice wine.
In the annals of history we come across indications that tell us ancient people too knew the taste of frozen grapes, fermented. Pliny the Elder tells us about fermented frost- hit grapes.
But after the ancients there was long silence.
In the modern times it was Germany who had the first encounter with Eiswein. The call it serendipity.
The year was 1794, and the farmers of Franconia were taken by surprise by a sudden squall of frost. Their grapes were ripe for the picking but were now studded with snowflakes. What to do now? German spirit does not wane in teeth-juddering winters (unless it comes rolling at them from the Russian terrain).
The farmers went out calmly and picked the frozen grapes, crushed them and squeezed out the deep yellow marrow, sweet and fresh, threw a few yeast cells and let them have a blast as they waited outside patiently to see what would happen.
The yield threw the farmers off their feet.
If the moderate German climate could make such magic in wine making, what could hold back the wizardry of a country like Canada, snow’s own kingdom?
Thoughts and endeavors on that line soon made Canada the capital of ice wines. Today Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula is the world’s largest producer of ice-wine. They put it humbly on their warm summers and unadulterated winters for the consistency of taste.
The wine industry put a premium on ice wines because of high risk (the vagaries of climate), low yield (you have seen that) and intense labour (handpicking). If the frost doesn’t fall in time, the grapes begin to rot, and the picking is called off.
The quality of the produce is put under severe tests by the standards set by Vintner’s Quality Alliance.
My encounter with ice wine
I thought my life would perish singing the paeans of ice-wines without ever touching gold. I would be survived by all those ice-wines satiating other tongues in other continents far away.
Then I got a call from my old classmate and dearest friend.
“Manu, this is Soyi. I am coming next week. Anything special you need from here?”
Soyi calling from Ontario! Soyi calling from ice-wine’s own country! Soyi asking me what I want from Canada! True, I had some apprehensions, thinking about the expense of the bottled nectar, but my greed won at the end of the battle in mind.
“Manu, good that you asked. That was exactly what I was thinking.”
Though I always looked forward to meeting Soyi who visits once in every year since he went abroad, this time waiting was so special.
It was a solemn event.
I closed all doors and windows, put my mobile into flight-mode, made sure that no enemy in the form of a relative or a friend would give me a surprise visit. Then we family gathered around the long slender black bottle, which now grew into the proportion of the idol of Bacchus.
My wife and my daughter held the bottle firmly (I had warned them that if they let it drop they would have to forget they had a family) as I eased out the cork.
I slowly ladled the slightly viscous nectar into the glasses. Deep orange-yellow liquid tumbled out, sloshed at the concave bottom of the glass, from where swirled up sweet floral notes to fill up the room.
I held the glass brimming with nectar against the sun pouring in through the closed window pane as if it was some kind of a ritual, dismissing the stare of my family. Then I brought it against my lips. Such sweetness… such roundness…such fruitiness…. I closed my eyes… suddenly I could see…
…The men sigh, rise from their benches, emerge out of the building and begin to shuffle unhurriedly towards the vineyard along an earth now plastered with thick wads of December snow…. From the vines dangle drops of purple glass beads, grapes, huddled together by the powdery snow.
More Details about ice-wine
Alcohol percentage: 12V
Taste : Sweet
Pair it with: Cheese, Fruits, Foie Grass
How to use: Chill it in refrigerator for an hour before using it