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Beppi Crosariol (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)
Beppi Crosariol (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)

Beppi Crosariol's Wines & Spirits

Beyond icewine Add to ...

Bet I can read your mind. Ready? Name a type of dessert wine.

Your answer is "icewine."

I find the trick works almost every time, at least in Canada. If you answered "sauternes" or "trockenbeerenauslese," I'm duly impressed and grateful I wagered no money.

It's a testament to the quality, consistency and duty-free ubiquity of Canada's flagship wine export that the stuff has become almost synonymous with dessert wine here in the land of snow.

It's also a shame. The irony about icewine is that it's so high in sugar it can overwhelm some desserts. Personally, I like icewine best on its own, as dessert.

Besides, the field of sweet wines - "stickies," as Australians like to call them - is vast, varied and overly neglected.

It ranges from the ethereal, aforementioned sauternes, which paradoxically make a good match for savoury foods often encountered at the holidays, such as liver paté and smelly cheeses, to port and sherry, the fortified elixirs stereotypically associated with cigars, drawing rooms and monarchists.

But those are just the biggies. If you've not before had a Monbazillac, muscat de Baumes de Venises, boal Madeira, ice cider from Quebec (technically not a wine because it's made from apples) or moscato d'Asti, you've been missing drinks that, glass for glass, have accounted for more wine-drinker epiphanies than those on the dry side. And remember that dessert is short. The best way to prolong it is with a meditation beverage.

It's uncanny how dessert wines, though made from grapes, can evoke so many flavours from the seasonal baker's pantry - dried fruits, preserved fruits such as plum jam or tinned apricots, honey, caramelized sugar, cream, roasted nuts and spices such as ginger and cinnamon.

Like a properly made pie, all good dessert wines balance sweetness with a commensurate tug of acidity.

Unlike most solid desserts, the nice thing about wine is that in virtually all cases the sugar comes solely from grapes. With dry wines, yeast feeds freely off the sugar in the grape juice to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Sweet wines are born when the yeast calls it quits part way through, either because there's so much sugar in the vat that the organisms choke on their own alcohol or they are intentionally stopped off by the winemaker, who either chills the tank to put the yeast to sleep or spikes it with excess alcohol.

The tank-chilling process is responsible for what I consider one of the most underappreciated wines on the planet. It's a slightly fizzy white from Italy's Piedmont region called moscato d'Asti (not to be confused with the inferior Asti Spumante). Low in alcohol (usually 5 to 6 per cent), it's bottled with a regular cork as opposed to a champagne stopper and is seductively perfumed. The flavours can hint strongly at white table grape, crisp apple, orange blossom and melon.

When most moscato d'Asti virgins taste a chilled glass for the first time, they usually go ga-ga. There's nothing better for desserts featuring fresh fruit. Moscato also rocks with cookies and other desserts that aren't too sweet, such as biscotti. It goes nicely with some trifles.

I think of moscato d'Asti as a class of its own, both for its low alcohol and its crowd-pleasing appeal. Incidentally, icewine is another niche style, pressed from frozen grapes that have been harvested from leafless vines typically in January in the middle of the frigid night, after the first major and sustained cold spell. The ice is drawn away from the still-unfrozen juice and pulp to concentrate the sugars.

Also in a little class of its own is ice cider, a Quebec spin on icewine using apples. After moscato d'Asti, it may be the other great epiphany "wine" for those who have never tried it. Think of the perfect apple pie, then think of that pie cranked to 11. There are several producers. Domaine Pinnacle sells for $29.95 in Ontario at a handful of the larger liquor stores. It's $24.95 in Quebec. Fabulous stuff.

But most other dessert wines all fall roughly into one of four broad categories.

LATE HARVEST These are picked after the normal harvest but before icewines. As vines shut down for winter, the berries dehydrate, concentrating the sugar. Some of the best Canadian dessert beverages fall into this category, yet they cost less than their sweeter, icy uptown cousins. A consistently good example is Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling from Niagara (about $25). Other good producers include Konzelmann, Chateau des Charmes, Lailey and Henry of Pelham.

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