Ice Wines From Around the Globe
No matter what part of the globe they’re from, ice wines are treasures to be savored.
Photos by Todd Huffman
It’s been months since the traditional grape harvest has ended, but in ice-wine country, row upon row of pristinely ripened grapes dangle precariously on the vines.
Through December—and sometimes into January or February—the grapes will shrivel and freeze, concentrating their sugars, acids and fruit essences. Shrouded under nets that shield from hungry birds and weather, they hang perilously, waiting for Mother Nature to bless them with her icy touch.
Ice wine (eiswein in Austria and Germany, or the single-word icewine in Canada) is the liquid gold from these jewels—the pressings of frozen harvests around the world.
Germany and Canada are the leading producers of traditional ice wines, but Austria, Switzerland and the United States, particularly Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York, also produce offerings.
Traditional ice wines are made by leaving grapes—usually highly aromatic, high-acid varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Vidal Blanc, Sylvaner and even Cabernet Franc—on the vines until temperatures drop to extreme lows (by law, at least 19.4˚F in Germany, 17.6˚F in Canada).
It’s a game against Mother Nature that often results in painstakingly low, and sometimes nonexistent, yields.
Birds are known to destroy entire crops. And even when netting is installed, the grapes can fall prey to a host of other dangers—wild boar, disease, mold, rain, wind or hail. Unseasonably warm winter weather can thwart an ice wine harvest completely.
Under ideal conditions, the grapes dehydrate and concentrate through the winter. Once a deep frost hits, they freeze into icy pellets that are painstakingly harvested, usually in the dead of night while temperatures remain frigid.
Battling frostbite and lack of sleep, pickers race against time and temperature to pick, select and press the icy fruit while still frozen. Under intense hydraulic pressure, the grapes eject a miniscule amount of concentrated, sugary essence, while the water content remains behind as ice.
Even after fermentation, the finished wines remain intensely sweet, with pristine fruit profiles and focused acidities that balance the sugar on the palate. At their best, the wines are silky, and they ripple unctuously with flavor and texture.
Amongst the finest dessert wines in the world, ice wines are ideal pairings with cheese, foie gras and other luscious delicacies. Here’s a look at the world’s major producing countries. —Anna Lee C. Iijima
Just as Austrian sweet wines are richer and fuller than German versions, Austrian eisweins don’t have the ethereal character of their German equivalents.
They have the same intense acidity, and the same stunning balance between sweetness and freshness. But they are more earth-bound, closer to the original fruit.
“One of the advantages we have here in Austria is that all our eisweins are made from physiologically ripe grapes,” says Markus Huber, whose winery in Traisental, just south of the Danube, made a stunning Riesling eiswein in 2012.
“Before it really gets cold—which hardly ever happens before December—the grapes have had time to really get ripe,” he says.
It’s this ripeness that makes Austrian eisweins so rich.
Austrians don’t want botrytis in their eisweins. So in November, they harvest any infected grapes for dessert wines and leave the rest.
Eiswein is a rarity in Austria. It’s less of a tradition than the superbly luscious dessert wines, or local specialties like Ruster Ausbruch. Yet, it can be made all over the country, in the Danube regions (mostly Riesling) and in the Weinviertel to the north.
Weinrieder, close to the Czech frontier, makes occasional eiswein from Welschriesling, but the majority of eisweins come from Burgenland, in the area around the shallow, marshy Lake Neusiedl, which is the spiritual home of Austrian dessert wines.
In the flat landscape, where lake mists bring the annual crop of botrytis, a few brave souls leave a parcel of grapes to hang for eiswein. Some years, the wait can be long—the 2011 eiswein was harvested at the beginning of February 2012.
The grapes are an eclectic mix—Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Scheurebe, Traminer, Welschriesling and even Zweigelt, which makes a rare red eiswein. Scheurebe makes the purest eiswein, an aromatic intermediary between the over-the-top perfumes of Traminer and the cleaner, more neutral Welschriesling.
As with most ice wines around the world, Austrian examples come in 375-ml or 500-ml bottles. They are not cheap: expect prices up to $50. While almost every vintage produces some eisweins, the best recent years have been 2009 and 2011. —Roger Voss
Gsellmann and Gsellmann (Burgenland)
Hans und Christine Nittnaus (Burgenland)
Schloss Gobelsburg (Kamptal)
“An ideal eiswein is like a diamond,” says Rowald Hepp, managing director of Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau. “Crystal clear, pure, pristine, cool and with very fresh acidity.”
German eiswein— renowned for its purity, complexity and balance—is the benchmark by which all other ice wines are compared.
The first documented eiswein occurred in the 19th century, developed serendipitously by winemakers who came upon grapes left on vines through the winter to feed livestock. Commercial eiswein production only began in the 1960s, when such modern equipment as protective netting and grape presses able to efficiently handle frozen grapes proliferated.
Eiswein is distinct from other German dessert wines—beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese—which are made from shriveled late-harvest grapes affected by noble rot, or botrytis. Eiswein is made only from pristine frozen fruit, resulting in a flavor profile that’s fresher, more delicate and more primary.
German wine laws forbid using any sort of artificial freezing in the production of eiswein. Not every German winter guarantees a deep freeze, though. In many years, most recently 2006 and 2011, almost no eiswein was produced.
According to the German Wine Institute, ultimately only five to ten percent of grapes designated for eiswein make it into finished wine. The remaining crop falls prey to birds and beasts, gets blown away by rain, wind or hail, or removed for quality.
According to Hepp, despite all its liabilities, eiswein is characterized by its closeness to nature.
While he says that commercial freezers yield more consistent results, German eisweins “show more variation in taste due to the vintage character—the different picking dates, conditions and the varied temperatures (and fruit concentration) from year to year.”
This individuality also produces an expressiveness that spans a lifetime.
“When made from aromatic grapes like Riesling, the concentration in fruit and aromatics make eisweins very attractive in their early years,” says Hepp.
As they mature, Hepp says, “…the fruit and aroma goes into the background and ripe—yet pronounced—acidity in combination with more mineral flavors start to dominate.” —ALI
Dr. Loosen (Mosel)
Dr. Pauly Bergweiler (Mosel)
Maximin Grünhäuser (Mosel)
Schloss Saarstein (Mosel)
Schloss Vollrads (Rheingau)
Although several parts of the U.S. are capable of producing ice wine, as a cool-climate wine region with an affinity for growing Riesling and long links to German winemaking, New York’s Finger Lakes region is the most notable.
Yet unlike Canada, where climactic conditions almost always guarantee a traditional harvest, or Germany, where wine laws and legacy demand adherence to traditional methods, New York wineries don’t always wait for the grapes to freeze on the vine.
There are roughly 20 producers in the Finger Lakes of ice wine or iced wine (frozen after harvest), and in classic American style, no one agrees on the right method or grapes to use.
But it’s produced democratization in a sense—there’s an ice wine for every preference, and with prices generally between $20–65, they’re supremely affordable in the pricey world of ice wine.
Sheldrake Point, one of the leading producers of ice wine in the Finger Lakes, employs only traditional methods, using Riesling, and sometimes Cabernet Franc. According to co-owner Bob Madill, ice wine from the Finger Lakes can be “laser-like in their precision—like a beautiful, clean note, and backed with enormous amounts of acidity.”
Of his 2010 Riesling Ice Wine, “I can take that wine anywhere in the world,” he says. “But we couldn’t have made that wine if we made it in a more calculated fashion. It’s a reflection of the vineyard, and what’s going on there.”
Martha Macinski, the owner and winemaker at Standing Stone, prefers to harvest superripe, unfrozen grapes. She says freezing harvested grapes to –5˚F and then pressing them slowly results in less water and ice in the grape must.
Macinski says it produces a wine that’s intensely sweet, bright with acidity and concentrated with fruit. Honeyed on the palate, with notes of spice and earth, Standing Stone wines are unique among ice or iced wines, but they don’t lack complexity.
“We pick the grapes late-harvest, so leaves are gone and the grapes are raisining—which changes the flavor profile in the wine to give us the nutty, hazelnut flavor that many folks seem to like,” says Macinski.
“We think the yield loss in freezing grapes on the vine is what drives the price so high,” says Macinski. “By avoiding the losses, our wines are much more affordable.” —ALI
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards
Icewine (one word!) and Canada are a perfect match.
No other country can boast enough warmth in the summer to perfectly ripen a variety of grapes, yet offer the consistently frigid (but not deadly cold) winter temperatures required to create icewine.
Canada’s ability to produce high-quality icewine almost every vintage is unsurpassed—part of the reason it’s the world’s largest producer.
Ontario is the center of icewine production, where it makes up 15 percent of the province’s annual grape harvest, though only four percent of its total wine output.
The Niagara Peninsula and its 10 subappellations, where much of Ontario’s icewine is made, benefit from Lake Ontario’s warming effect, which prevents vine-killing winter temperatures.
Requirements are strict: temperature at harvest through press must be colder than minus 8˚C (17.6˚F) and brix—a measure of sugar levels in the grape—must be over 35˚, both of which contribute to sweet, rich, concentrated wines.
Vidal Blanc—a particularly winter-hardy hybrid grape variety—accounts for nearly two-thirds of Ontario’s production, while most of the rest is made from Cabernet Franc and Riesling.
However, both Ontario and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, which also produces a substantial amount of icewine, work with a relatively wide range of red and white varieties.
Ingo Grady, Mission Hill Family Estate’s director of wine education, says that Vidal’s lower natural acidity creates considerable differences when compared to Riesling.
“Vidal is more lush in structure, with more tropical fruit aromas and flavors, such as mango and pineapple,” says Grady. “Vidal icewines, therefore, seem to be sweeter and richer in flavor and, with some age, can show caramel and maple flavors, dramatically different from European ice wines.”
Icewine is particularly coveted in the Far East. More than half of Canada’s icewine exports went to China, while the other top four importers are also in Asia.
In 2012, the U.S. imported fewer than 1,000 cases of icewine, less than one-sixth the amount it received a just few years earlier. Think about that the next time you are sipping on a glass of Canada’s sugary nectar, and it will seem even more precious. —Sean Sullivan
Inniskillin (Niagara, Okanagan)
Mission Hill (Okanagan)
Mother Nature vs. the Freezer
Using technology to mimic what nature does so precariously makes a lot of sense. Commercial freezers operating at extremely low temperatures allow winemakers to freeze grapes at their most pristine, protecting the fruit’s cellular structure.
Known as cryogenic extraction, it saves time waiting for the fruit to freeze naturally, and it protects the fruit from freezing and thawing repeatedly, as it might on the vine.
Freezing harvested grapes allows the winemaker, not Mother Nature, to be in full control of grape’s quality before, during and after freezing.
In the United States, Canada and Austria, wines made by freezing grapes after harvest cannot be labeled ice wine. It’s lead to a host of derivative designations (Iced or icebox wines, or in the case of California producer Bonny Doon, Vin de Glacière) with labels specifying that grapes were frozen after harvest.
These iced wines can be made every year, regardless of vintage, climactic conditions or the threat of animals. With decreased labor and production cost, the wines can be delivered less expensively and more consistently to consumers.
Proponents say that cryogenic extraction produces a cleaner, more consistently flavored product. Fans of traditional ice wines insist that it’s the variability, and liability, in nature that makes those products so unique, so rare and so good. —ALI