Welcome to the enchanted frozen world of ice wine! You’ve probably tried this dessert wine before, but how much do you actually really know about it? Here’s your crash course on this distinctive type of wine.
Most of us think that ice wine comes from Canada but it actually originated in Germany, where to date the most expensive kind of ice wines are produced. Canada and Germany are both the largest producers of ice wines, about 75% of the ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario. With almost double the sweetness of Coca-Cola, this amalgamation of grapes and cold climates is hard to turn your back on once you’ve tasted it. A holiday favorite given its sweet, syrupy libation making it the perfect cap to the end of a meal, ice wine has gained popularity, especially among drinkers who enjoy sweeter wines like Prosecco, Moscato and Riesling.
What is Ice Wine?
Originally made in Germany and Austria, and more recently in Canada and China ice wine or Eiswein falls under the dessert wine category. The main grape varieties used for ice wine are Riesling and Vidal Blanc. The grapes are left to freeze throughout the winter, they are then picked and pressed to start the fermentation process, the temperature must be below -7°C or -8ºC before the grapes can be picked. Harvesting often takes place overnight during the winter months, when the vineyards are usually blanketed under a thick layer of snow.
A Little History
During a particularly harsh winter in 1794, winemakers from Franken, Germany were forced to create a product from the grapes that were available for harvest. The vintners noticed that when the first frost hit, the juice inside the grapes became much sweeter, and once picked, pressed and fermented, the first ice wine was born. An immediate hit, this technique became quite popular in Germany and by the mid 1800s, the Rheingau region in Germany was readily producing what the Germans called Eiswein.
Why is Ice Wine so Expensive?
The intensive winemaking process as well as many stringent government regulations put ice wine in an expensive category. Some seasons of winter, the frost may not even hit the grapes at all – leaving them rotten and a total waste. German producers are making less ice wine as compared to the 80s and 90s given the annual temperature rise due to global warming. To avoid artificial processing, the production of grapes are limited to a handful of countries where temperatures consistently drop below freezing points over the winter.
Why is Ice Wine Sweet?
When the grapes hit a freezing point – the water content inside them freezes; however, the sugar content and other dissolved solids do not. This results in an extremely concentrated and super sugary liquid that is produced when the grapes are ultimately crushed.
Making Ice Wine
Making ice wine is a precarious endeavor for winemakers; they are fully dependent on mother nature and must pick out grapes at very short notices.
The frozen grapes at around 20 ºF (-7º C), are brought into the winery where they are fed into a grape crusher and then into a grape press. Apparently, many heritage grape presses often break while pressing the hard, icy, marble-like frozen grapes in order to extract the concentrated sugar syrup. However, only about 10% to 20% of the liquid in these frozen grapes is used. The juice is very, very sweet, anywhere from ~32–46 brix. Brix (°Bx) is a method to measure the potential alcohol content of a wine before it is made by determining the sugar level in grapes. It takes about 3 to 6 months for the fermentation process to prepare ice wine.
What is True Ice Wine?
True ice wine requires a freezing climate so the grapes are frozen naturally and can be harvested. If grapes are commercially frozen in Canada, Germany, Austria, and the US, wines are not allowed to be labeled as ice wine. Wine made from commercially frozen grapes are usually labeled as “iced wine” or simply “dessert wine”. So, if you’re on the lookout for some authentic true ice wine – be sure to read the labels and look up the production information!
Pairing Food with Ice Wine
Ice wine is considered dessert wine and usually has an explosive fruit flavor. Given that it’s on the higher end of the sweetness spectrum, you would want to pair ice wine with subtle desserts containing enough fat to balance out the taste. A few desserts that match well with ice wine are vanilla pound cake, cheesecake, ice cream, coconut ice cream, fresh fruit panna cotta, and white chocolate mousse. If you prefer more savory snacks – a great pairing option with ice wine is softer cheeses.
Aging Ice Wine
It is said that most ice wines can only age up to about 10 years, but certain varieties like Grüner Veltliner and Riesling have shown to age much longer. The aging of ice wine primarily has to do with the wine’s acidity level and lack of volatile acidity. Wines with high sugar content and high acidity are likely to easily age for 30–50 years. Long-term aging of ice wines will gradually change their taste. Over time, aged ice wines become darker colored, sweeter tasting, and gain tertiary ageing flavors of molasses, maple and hazelnut.
Give Ice Wine a Try
Irrespective of how the wine is prepared, the result is liquid gold! Ice wine is one of the finest dessert wines in the world, makes for a great gift and is perfect for toasting the holiday season.