Ice wine, or eiswein as the Germans call it, is a unique dessert wine made from grapes that have been left on the vine beyond traditional harvest times (i.e., well into winter) so that when they are finally harvested, they’re pulled from the vine in a state that can only be called completely frozen. An unusual harvesting technique, the freezing allows the grape’s sugar concentration to markedly increase, while simultaneously intensifying the grape’s overall flavor. While it has only been in official production since 1961, ice wine’s reputation is both solid and luminous. Because pressing frozen grapes yields less juice, ice wine takes a lot more grapes and energy to produce less product. Highly sought after, unique and still relatively risky, ice wine is well worth the extra effort and money it takes to secure a good bottle.
It was almost 200 years ago when eiswein was first mentioned in German writing, and there are two stories that compete as its source. The first is of a German wine maker, who — because he was away during harvest — found that upon his return, all of his grapes had frozen on the vine. Determined not to lose out on the harvest and money it would provide, he harvested the grapes anyway and proceeded to press and ferment them as usual. Imagine his delight when what he tasted was the first eiswein!
The other popular story claims that when a famine struck along the banks of the Rhine, growers decided not to harvest their entire grape crop so that their animals would have something to eat during the winter months. When not all the grapes were gobbled up, some curious Germans decided to try and make wine from the frozen remains. They found the result to be sweeter and richer than the unfrozen harvest would have ever been. Eiswein — even in famine — had come into being.
Why Is It Sweeter?
A grape’s a grape’s a grape, right? Wrong. When frozen, the sugar content of a grape increases to around 250 grams per liter of wine, which marks a very pleasing contrast to the acidity present in grapes, and freezing provides another sweet-enhancing benefit as well in that it prohibits the growth of botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble mold,” which is the mold that lessens acidity in normal wine production. Unlike other sweet wines that are chock full of the noble mold, and as such, are sweet in an oversimplified and unbalanced way, ice wine’s sweetness is matched with the grape’s natural and un-cut acidity, making it an excellent partner for sweet or savory foods, particularly cheese.
Today’s Ice Wines
There’s nothing willy-nilly about ice wine production these days. From Canada to the northern United States to Austria, anybody with a long, dark winter is starting to produce notable ice wine. Vintners who want to make ice wine do so with a well-seasoned and well-thought-out plan. As with many things where discernment will come into play, quality matters more than quantity. The entire growing season must be a season of vigilance. Harsh spring pruning reduces the yield but intensifies the health of the vine and the grapes that remain. A “green harvest” is performed during the traditional harvest time, and unripe and unhealthy grapes are removed from the vine to allow more energy and space to those grapes that will become ice wine. A keen eye must also be employed to spot any “noble rot” that might be lurking about. Since only healthy grapes, sans botrytis, can be used in ice wine production. Once the grapes are ripe, they are partly defoliated and wrapped in breathable sheeting or nets to protect them from feasting birds. Kept safe thusly, the grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine all the way into January, when they are picked and pressed into that luscious treat known as ice wine.
No matter what your festive occasion, ice wine’s charms are sure to enhance it. From savory entrees to delectable desserts, this masterpiece of accidental invention will complement — and compliment — time and again.
Frozen grapes for ice wine image from Sonoma Facebook page
About the Author: Karly Greene is a contributing blogger in love with bourbon and eiswein. She shops for all her favorite spirits at City Wine Cellar.