Raising a Glass to Iowa’s Coolest Wine
Story by Jim Duncan
Nearly every gardener and farmer in Iowa agreed that the long, hot summer of 2012 was horrible for their crops. Not Matt Nissen.
Nissen was overdue for some good luck. Since he planted his first vines in 2000, he’s run into several challenges, many created by his stringent quality controls. Prairie Moon began as an all-organic operation. After 10 years he realized that mineral oil and sulfur were no match for the relentless appetite Japanese beetles have for Iowa vines.
He still grows his grapes, 25 to 30 tons a year, in a sustainable manner.
Vines are carefully planted and trellised over 18 acres of hills and dales so that different varietals are exposed to optimum light conditions. Some are trained to grow high and others close to the ground.
Nissen covers his more tender varietals with hay in the winter to protect them against root and trunk damage. All his grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted. All the leftovers from pressing are returned to compost.
Nissen is proud that all his wines are made with his own grapes. He’s particularly pleased with Winter Moon Ice Wine. Made exclusively with Vidal Blanc grapes, Winter Moon has a deep flavor that experts have described as both “earthy” and “lychee like.” Unlike many other dessert wines (Sauternes, Tokaji), ice wines must be made with grapes that are free of noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). That gives them what winemakers call a “clean” quality and flavor. Their syrupy intensity is cultivated by letting the grapes freeze on the vine before harvesting, usually in late November or early December. That intensifies their sugars but requires some planning.
“We keep an eye on the weather forecasts. When the first 15-degree overnight is predicted, we call in the crew, usually about 10 people. We start harvesting at sunrise. It only takes a few hours because there are no leaves on the vines and the grapes just fall right off. We fill the wine press immediately and start pressing. By then the grapes have usually warmed up to 17 degrees, which is perfect,” explains Nissen.
You need some luck to make ice wine. The wet spring and summer of 2010 wiped out Nissen’s ice wine grapes. The warm late fall of 2011 limited the size of his crop and hence the supply of this year’s batch, which is scheduled for market in November. Next year he expects a big batch.
Winter Moon is arguably the superstar of Iowa wines. The Mid-American Wine Competition rated the 2007 vintage as “Spectacular.” It won that organization’s Dr. Dick Peterson Award as the best Iowa wine of 2010. Des Moines caterer Cyd Koehn says it’s her favorite wine of any kind to pair with chocolate. She also says it’s an amazing wine to use for cooking, particularly for reductions to serve with game or desserts. Des Moines chef Hal Jasa (Proof) says it’s even marvelous after turning to vinegar.
In the first century of the Christian Era, both Pliny the Elder and Martial wrote about wine grapes being left on the vine until frozen. Ice wine seems to have disappeared with the Roman Empire. But at the beginning of the 19th century, grapes were left to freeze on the vine as animal fodder during an early German winter. Farmers noticed that those grapes yielded a sweeter musk, so some were pressed into wine. Ice wine harvests in Germany were rare until 1961, when Eiswein became popular and modern technologies made it more practical.
In 1984 Karl Kaiser made the first Canadian ice wines with Botrytis-free Vidal grapes in Ontario. By the third millennium, Canada had become the leading ice wine producer in the world. In 2007 a Canadian ice wine (Northern Ice Vidal Blanc Icewine 2005) won the Monde Selection’s Grand Gold, the rarely awarded, highest honor accorded to any wine.
All this year’s Prairie Moon wines except one (Honey Moon Red) were rated as vegan-friendly by Barnivore.com, the ultimate authority on vegan beverages. Very few wines are vegan-friendly because most are filtered with animal products such as isinglass (sturgeon bladder), egg whites, gelatin, and casein (a milk protein). Vegan purists say this renders them unfit to drink. Nissen substitutes cellulose for animal products.
Cyd Koehn’s Ice Wine Enhancer
1 cup ice wine
2 cups agave nectar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
8 ounces fresh organic lavender
Combine ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a slow simmer over medium heat. Strain through a sieve to remove lavender; let mixture cool. Use in drinks with a splash of sparkling water, drizzle on lemon cupcakes before frosting, or mix with fresh fruit and a splash of the ice wine for a refreshing dessert drink.
Writer Jim Duncan learned everything he considers worth knowing about food, cooking, and gardening from his grandparents.
Photos ©istockphoto/Digital Paws Inc., and courtesy Prairie Moon Winery.