For the Love of Eiswein--A Christmas Story


first published December 1997, for the Los Angeles Times SyndicateThere are those who truly believe in the cliche that love is blind and indeed they are often right. Life isn't perfect, so we tend to fill in the gaps with our creative imagination, and a certain degree of purposeful lack of vision can go far in keeping things going. But given those rare times when one is hit with the real thing that never disappoints, is lasting, in fact mellows and improves with age, and for which one can actually remove the rose colored glasses so often necessary for enchantment, only a fool would fail to treasure such beneficence. There were few such fools Christmas Eve 1996 when the Gods bestowed the gift of the most perfect conditions to date for making Eiswein to many vineyards throughout the wine growing regions of Germany.

Grapes, other than dessert wine grapes, are normally harvested in October. The advantage of allowing grapes to sit longer on the vine is that more flavor and sweetness can develop. The risk, however, is that they usually start to deteriorate before the temperature drops in mid January. The longer the wait, the higher the risk that it will all be for naught and the entire crop wasted. When grapes freeze, the watery part freezes solid but the sugary juices containing flavors remain liquid. The grapes must be pressed before thawing so that only the naturally concentrated juices are released and the watery part stays frozen and left behind.

Because it is impossible to predict just how long the temperature will cooperate, it is advisable to pick the grapes immediately. When vintners emerged from mid-night mass on Christmas Eve, to discover that an unprecedented early drop in temperature had frozen the perfectly ripened grapes, they felt as if they had been given a Christmas present. It was the same heart-warming story in many vineyards throughout Germany: Fellow parishioners volunteered to go immediately to the vineyards to help pick the precious harvest before the grapes could defrost and spoil.

Eiswein, was invented in 1965 in Germany, the world's Northern-most wine growing region. It is usually made with either the Riesling, or Scheurebe grape (a cross between Riesling and Muller-Thurgau). It's intensity is at least equal to that of the renowned trockenbeerenauslese, fondly referred to as tba. Eiswein, however, has more purity of flavor because the freezing process does not impart any additional flavors. The concentration of grapes for tba is caused by botrytis (aka noble rot). Botrytis, which is a fungus, breaks down the skin of the grape, causing the water to evaporate and the grape to shrivel. The botrytis also adds a distinctive burnt sugar-like tartness which masks some of the grape's flavor. The most conscientious growers remove any botrytis affected grapes before making the Eiswein.

The 1996 Eiswein harvest had the advantage not only of an early freeze but also of exceptionally clean botrytis free conditions and, of course, this is reflected in the extraordinary quality of the wine. We all know that too much sweetness can quickly become cloying, but the beauty of a great German Eiswein is that the natural high acidity of the grape lends a provocative stinging poignancy, much desired balance between sweetness and fruit, and aging potential of as long as 100 years. Though often easy to drink even when very young, it isn't until about 10 years that the sweetness and acidity come into full married balance, with layers of unfolding flavors. It only takes a little glass of this liquid joy to go a long way and once experienced, it is impossible to forget.

Eiswein, retailing from $65 to $150 for 350 ml., is relatively inexpensive if you consider that for every glass you are drinking the equivalent of ten glasses that would have been produced from the same grapes had they not undergone the concentration. Besides, Christmas comes but once a year and Eiswein more seldom still. And once opened, the wine will keep refrigerated to be savored repeatedly over several weeks.

People are always asking what to eat with a wine that fills the mouth with such honeyed ambrosial nectar, it's like eating a glorious liquid dessert. My choice would be the simplest and finest cookie I know: the almond crescent. Crisp, buttery, impossibly fragile, with the faintest whisper of cinnamon, they will prove the point that one perfect thing deserves another. And, this recipe takes very little time to make in a food processor. 1996 Eisweins that I have enjoyed in the various wine regions of Germany which are exported to U.S.A. include: Selbach-Oster (Mosel), Hermann Donnhoff (Nahe), Gunderloch (Rheinhessen), Heyl zu Hernsheim (Rheinhessen), Josef Biffar (Pfalz), Fuhrmann-Eymael (Pfalz), Muller-Catoir (Pfalz),Von Buhl (Pfalz), Dr. Heger (Baden), Salwey (Baden).

Rose's Crescents

2/3 cup blanched sliced almonds 1/3 cup sugar (preferably superfine)
16 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2/3 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Topping 1/2 cup superfine sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat to 325˚F.

In food processor, process almonds and sugar until very finely ground. Cut butter into few pieces and add with motor running. Process until smooth. Scrape sides of bowl. Add flour and sprinkle salt on top. Pulse just to incorporate. (Electric mixer method: Soften butter. Grind almonds fine in nut grinder. Combine almonds, butter, and sugar and beat til fluffy. Stir together flour and salt and beat on low speed until incorporated.)

Scrape dough onto plastic wrap; press into thick disk, wrap well and chill 2 hours or until firm. Divide dough into 8. Work with 1 piece, keeping rest chilled. Knead dough with floured hands until malleable. Pinch off pieces and roll into 3/4-inch round balls. Roll on lightly floured counter into cylinders with tapered ends, about 3-inches long by 1/2 inch thick. Form each into crescent shape and place on ungreased cookie sheets, 1-inch apart.

Bake 14 to 16 minutes or until set but not brown. For even baking, rotate cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking.

Topping: Stir together sugar and cinnamon until uniform. Cool cookies on sheets 10 minutes. While still warm, with small offset spatula or pancake turner, lift each cookies from sheet and dip in topping, turning gently to coat well. Cool on racks.

Store: Airtight, 1 month room temperature, refrigerator, several months in freezer.

Makes 5 dozen cookies.

Note: To make superfine in food processor, simply process fine granulated sugar for several minutes until fine as sand.