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VINTAGE DELICACY

Can New York's winters be all that bad if we have to make our icewines artificially?

Icewine is a sweet, concentrated dessert wine made, as the name suggests, by letting grapes freeze on the vine before pressing. The original and most famous is the eiswein of Germany; Ontario is the world's second-leading producer, and New York is not far behind.

The secret to the three great dessert wines of the world is removing water from the grapes, leaving the concentrated juice (and grape sugars) behind. France's sauternes do this with a desirable type of mold (botrytis) that eats the water in the grape. Late-harvest dessert wines dehydrate as they spend extra time on the vine. Icewines lose water because water freezes at a higher temperature than grape juice; when the wine is pressed, the juice runs off and the water, in the form of ice crystals, stays behind. But unlike regular late-harvest wines, the natural acids in the grape are concentrated as well as the sugar, giving these wines a refreshing crispness that makes the sweetness less cloying.

Icewines are expensive because they are scarce. Weather conditions destroy many of the grapes between the normal harvest in September and the picking time for icewine, anywhere from November to February. Also, only certain grapes in a bunch will have enough sugar to remain just partially frozen, so they are picked and sorted by hand, which also costs more. A German eiswein can easily cost $100 or more for a half-bottle; Canadian versions are around $40. The best of the Germans are made from Riesling. Canada produces some Riesling but has also had great success with the Vidal grape, which has similar light, peachy fruit flavors but less acidity. Both Canadian and New York wineries also use Ravat, with a heavier fruit taste tending toward apricot.

New York's icewines are less expensive, not only because they use different grapes, but because they use a different production method -- they harvest grapes at the normal time and put them in a freezer. Because they make greater quantities with less waste, New York's icewines are usually $15 or less; Wagner makes an interesting Ravat Icewine for less than $10.

Like any dessert wine, icewine should be chilled well and served either by itself or with a dessert that is less sweet than the wine itself, such as fruit. The first icewines of the 1996 vintage in Canada will be released in November. Inniskillin and some of the other top producers will commemorate the release with a special tasting. A bus trip to the tasting is being organized; call Kevin Driscoll at Prime Wines (873-6688) for details.

Howard Riedel writes the wine update for the Premier Group.