What is Ice Wine? (Eiswein): A Quick Guide
Last Updated on September 17, 2023.
Ok, so this guide may not be so quick. But depending on your interest in Ice Wine, we’ve included a Table of Contents below to help you find the information you need quickly. This guide to Ice Wine (also known as Eiswein), is part of our wine education series. Learn about unique wine and wine-making styles.
- What is Ice Wine?
- Why does freezing grapes on the vine make the wine sweeter?
- The Production of Ice Wine
- Types of Grapes Used to Make Ice Wine
- Tasting and Appreciating Ice Wine
- Food Pairing Ice Wines
- Notable Ice Wine Producing Countries
- No, Ice Wine is not Related to Botrytis or "Noble Rot"
- The Impact of Climate Change on Ice Wine Production
- Buying and Collecting Ice Wine
- Frequently Asked Questions about Ice Wine
What is Ice Wine?
Ice wine, also known as Eiswein in German, is a type of dessert wine distinguished by the unique process of its production. Unlike other wines, ice wine is produced from grapes that are frozen while they are still on the vine. The defining characteristic of ice wine comes from this freezing process, which naturally concentrates the sugars in the grapes, resulting in a very sweet wine.
The process is delicate and timing is crucial. Winemakers wait until the first deep frost of the season, typically well into winter, to harvest the grapes. This usually means that the grapes are harvested in the middle of the night or very early in the morning, often under moonlight or by the light of headlamps, when temperatures are at their coldest.
Once harvested, the frozen grapes are promptly pressed. Since water in the grapes freezes but the sugars do not, the pressing process yields a small amount of concentrated, very sweet juice. The residual water in the grapes remains as ice and is discarded.
The extracted juice is then fermented, but due to the high sugar content, the fermentation process is slow and can take several months. The end product is a wine that’s rich, sweet, and often has flavors of tropical fruit, honey, and citrus balanced by high acidity.
Ice wine is generally served in small amounts due to its intense sweetness and higher price point. It is usually sipped alone or paired with desserts, cheese, or even spicy cuisine. Despite the labor-intensive process and unpredictable nature of its production, ice wine continues to be a sought-after luxury for wine enthusiasts worldwide.
Why does freezing grapes on the vine make the wine sweeter?
The science behind the sweetness of ice wine centers around the relationship between sugar concentration, water content, and the effects of freezing temperatures on fruit ripening.
As grapes mature during the growing season, they naturally accumulate sugars. This process continues even into the late stages of the season, and during this time, grapes may freeze, thaw, and then freeze again. Each time this freeze-thaw cycle occurs, the complexity and richness of the grape’s flavor profile increases. The freezing process does not affect the sugars and other polyphenols (complex organic compounds often associated with flavor) within the grapes. Instead, it’s the water within the grapes that freezes.
When the water inside the grapes freezes, it expands, breaking the individual cells within the grape. When these grapes thaw again, the cellular damage enables greater extraction of the concentrated flavors, sugars, and polyphenols within the grape. Therefore, when the grapes are eventually pressed while still frozen, most of the water remains behind as ice, and a highly concentrated, sweet juice is produced.
It’s important to note that the high sugar concentration in the grape juice doesn’t just contribute sweetness. These sugars also affect the wine’s viscosity, giving ice wine its characteristic rich, luscious mouthfeel. Moreover, the high sugar levels act as a natural preservative, enabling ice wines to be aged for many years, often developing more complex flavors over time.
So, the unique process of freezing grapes on the vine, combined with the natural biochemistry of the grapes, creates the conditions for making ice wine extraordinarily sweet and flavorful.
The Production of Ice Wine
Ice wine production begins long before the harvest with careful vineyard selection and grape care. The ideal microclimate for producing ice wine is a region that gets reliably cold enough for the grapes to freeze on the vine, but not so harsh that it would damage the vines. Throughout the growing season, meticulous care is required to maintain healthy grapes that can survive until the first frost.
Harvesting ice wine grapes is an exercise in patience and precision. Timing is crucial – the grapes must be left on the vine until a significant frost occurs, typically at temperatures of -7 to -8 degrees Celsius (19 to 17 degrees Fahrenheit). The frozen grapes are often picked by hand during the early morning hours or overnight to maintain their frozen state, often making the process labor-intensive and costly.
The next step in ice wine production is pressing the frozen grapes. This needs to be done while the grapes are still frozen to ensure that the water inside the grapes remains as ice. This results in the extraction of a small quantity of concentrated, sugary juice while leaving behind the frozen water.
Fermentation of this sweet juice then follows, a process that can take several months due to the high sugar content. In fact, it’s common for ice wine not to exceed an alcohol content of 12%. This is because the sugar content is so high that much of it is not converted into alcohol. Alternatively, the fermentation process may be deliberately stopped before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, resulting in a wine that is both sweet and relatively low in alcohol.
Finally, once fermentation is complete, the wine is aged, filtered, and then bottled under strict quality control measures. It’s worth noting that the entire process, from vine to bottle, is governed by strict regulations, particularly in regions that are renowned for their ice wine production, like Germany and Canada.
This intricate, labor-intensive process, coupled with the unpredictable influence of weather, makes ice wine a risky endeavor for winemakers. But the resulting wine – rich, sweet, and intensely flavored – makes it a risk that many are willing to take.
Types of Grapes Used to Make Ice Wine
Grapes most commonly used to produce Ice Wine include Vidal, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. These varietals tend to be naturally more acidic, which helps balance the wine so it’s not as syrupy when production is complete. New World winemakers are also experimenting with other varieties these days, including Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Tasting and Appreciating Ice Wine
The experience of tasting and appreciating ice wine is a sensory journey, spanning from visual cues to olfactory nuances, and finally, the captivating flavors.
Starting with the color, ice wine tends to have a distinctive hue that can range from light yellow to deep gold, sometimes even showing amber tones. The color can provide hints about the type of grape used and the age of the wine. Generally, older ice wines tend to have a darker color due to oxidation that occurs during aging.
The bouquet, or the aroma of ice wine, is typically quite intense. Given its concentrated nature, ice wine often presents a strong and rich array of fragrances that can include tropical fruits like lychee and pineapple, stone fruits like apricots and peaches, citrus notes, and often a distinct note of honey. As the wine ages, more complex aromas such as dried fruit, nuts, and even caramel can emerge.
In terms of flavor, ice wine is known for its intense sweetness, balanced by good acidity. This balance prevents the wine from being overly cloying and contributes to a cleaner finish. Depending on the grape variety and age, flavors can range from fresh and fruity in younger wines to more complex and layered in aged examples.
When it comes to serving ice wine, it is best served well chilled, usually around 6 to 10 degrees Celsius (43 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit). This temperature helps to emphasize the wine’s refreshing acidity and balance the intense sweetness. The choice of glassware can also impact the tasting experience. A small white wine or dessert wine glass is often used, which helps to concentrate the aromatic bouquet and direct the wine to the appropriate part of the tongue for tasting.
The aging potential of ice wine is significant, thanks to the high sugar content that acts as a natural preservative. While it can be enjoyed soon after bottling, ice wine can also be cellared for several years or even decades. Over time, the flavors evolve and become more nuanced, enhancing the complexity of the wine.
Lastly, proper storage is critical for preserving the quality of ice wine. Like all wines, it should be stored at a consistent, cool temperature, away from light and vibrations. Because of its sweetness and high sugar content, ice wine can often be re-corked and stored in the refrigerator for several days after opening without significant loss of flavor.
Food Pairing Ice Wines
Given their luxurious sweetness, ice wines are traditionally seen as dessert wines, often paired with foods that can match their intensity. For a classic combination, pair ice wine with desserts that are similarly sweet and have a notable fat content. This allows the sweetness and body of the ice wine to complement the dessert without overpowering it. Some dessert ideas include indulgences such as creme brulee, with its rich custard base and caramelized sugar top; pecan pie, offering a blend of nutty and sweet flavors; creamy banana pudding; or even a simple yet elegant dish of French vanilla ice cream.
On the savory side, ice wine can offer an intriguing contrast when paired with rich, fatty foods. Foie gras, with its decadent texture and complex flavors, stands as a prime example. The sweet notes of the wine act as a counterbalance to the savory richness of the foie gras, creating an unexpected but delightful combination.
Beyond these traditional pairings, ice wine also has the potential for more adventurous food partnerships. One unconventional yet surprisingly harmonious pairing is sushi. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, the sweetness and acidity of ice wine can complement the umami flavors of sushi remarkably well. The key to making this pairing work is ensuring your chosen ice wine has a good balance of acidity to cut through the richness of the sushi and cleanse the palate. Experimenting with such unique combinations can certainly add an element of surprise and enjoyment to your ice wine tasting experience.
Notable Ice Wine Producing Countries
Ice wine production is a niche pursuit, requiring a unique blend of climate conditions and meticulous viticulture. Below are some of the countries most noted for their ice wine production:
Particularly in the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and in British Columbia, Canada is the world’s largest producer of ice wine. The country’s consistently cold winters make it an ideal location for creating this sweet, concentrated wine. Canadian ice wine is primarily made from Vidal Blanc, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc grapes.
Known as “Eiswein” in German, this dessert wine has a long history in Germany, particularly in the Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz regions. Despite the country’s relatively cool climate, the necessary freezing temperatures are not a guarantee every year, making German ice wine a rare and often expensive treat.
Austrian ice wine, or “Eiswein,” is primarily produced in the Neusiedlersee region in Burgenland, which has the perfect conditions for ice wine production due to its long, sunny summers and cold, frosty winters. The main grape varieties used are Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling.
In the U.S., ice wine is mainly produced in the cooler Northwestern states like Washington and Oregon, and Northeastern states such as New York, particularly in the Finger Lakes region. Varieties commonly used for ice wine in these regions include Riesling, Vidal Blanc, and Cabernet Franc.
While relatively new to ice wine production, China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province has gained attention in recent years for its ice wines. The region’s extremely cold winters provide the necessary conditions for freezing the grapes on the vine.
Ice wine’s cost is generally higher than other types of wine due to the labor-intensive nature of its production, low yield, and the unpredictability of the weather conditions necessary for the grapes to freeze on the vine. This often leads to retail prices that can exceed $100 for a bottle of top-quality ice wine.
No, Ice Wine is not Related to Botrytis or “Noble Rot”
It’s also crucial to note that ice wine is a unique type of dessert wine not made through the process of “Noble Rot” or botrytis. Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that shrivels and decays wine grapes, resulting in Sauternes and other sweet wines. Ice wine, in contrast, derives its sweetness purely from the natural freezing, thawing, and concentration of the grapes’ sugars on the vine. This distinction is significant in understanding the special nature and unique flavors of ice wine.
The Impact of Climate Change on Ice Wine Production
Climate change has profound implications for all types of agriculture, and viticulture is no exception. Ice wine production, due to its reliance on specific and somewhat extreme weather conditions, is particularly susceptible.
Rising Temperatures and Harvest Challenges
As global temperatures rise due to climate change, the conditions necessary for the natural freezing of grapes on the vine are becoming less reliable. Warmer winters mean that in some years, temperatures may not drop low enough, or for long enough, to allow for the production of ice wine. This variability creates challenges for winemakers who rely on consistent freezing conditions. Notably, in Germany, which has a long history of ice wine production, there have been recent vintages where no Eiswein was produced due to insufficient freezing temperatures.
Innovations and Adaptations in the Industry
Faced with these challenges, ice wine producers are finding ways to adapt and innovate. Some are exploring new regions for ice wine production, particularly those that are expected to maintain the necessary cold winter temperatures despite global warming. Others are experimenting with alternative methods to simulate the natural freezing process, such as cryoextraction, where grapes are artificially frozen after harvesting. However, such techniques are somewhat controversial and may not be allowed under certain regulations, which stipulate that ice wine must be made from naturally frozen grapes.
Climate change adaptation also includes changes in vineyard management practices, such as adjusting the timing of vine training or pruning to mitigate against warmer temperatures. In some cases, wineries may need to consider transitioning away from ice wine production or diversifying their offerings to include other styles of wine.
While these adaptations present significant challenges, they also provide opportunities for innovation and creativity in the industry. The future of ice wine may look different from its past, but the drive to create this unique, sweet wine continues to inspire winemakers and delight wine enthusiasts around the world.
Buying and Collecting Ice Wine
Venturing into the world of buying and collecting ice wine requires an understanding of identifying quality, recognizing the potential for investment, and knowing how to properly store and age these unique wines.
Identifying Quality: Labels, Regions, and Producers
A crucial first step to acquiring quality ice wine is understanding what to look for on a wine label. The type of grape, region of origin, and year of production (the vintage) are all significant factors that can impact the quality and taste of the wine. Some regions have strict regulations governing the production of ice wine, ensuring a high standard of quality. Notable producers with a consistent track record of excellence can also be a reliable source of fine ice wine. It’s worth doing some research and perhaps consulting with a knowledgeable wine merchant or sommelier to discover renowned producers and vintages.
Investment Potential: Prices and Auction Results
Due to their rarity and the labor-intensive nature of their production, ice wines can be quite expensive, with prices for top wines often exceeding $100 per bottle. However, this also means that ice wines can represent a unique investment opportunity within the world of wine collecting. Some vintages and producers may appreciate in value over time, especially if the wine is properly stored and kept in good condition. Keeping an eye on wine auction results can provide valuable insights into trends and potential investment opportunities in the world of ice wine.
Storing and Aging: Care for Your Collection
Once you’ve acquired a collection of ice wines, it’s essential to store them properly to maintain their quality and potentially enhance their flavors over time. Ice wine should be stored at a consistent, cool temperature, away from light, and in a relatively humid environment to prevent the corks from drying out. Also, since ice wine bottles are usually sealed with a cork, they should be stored horizontally to keep the cork moist. Properly stored, ice wine can age for many years, and some may even improve with age, developing more complex flavors and aromas.
Frequently Asked Questions about Ice Wine
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