You may think you are a bit of a wine connoisseur, but do you know what ice wine is? Often known by its German name, ‘eiswein’, this is a rather special dessert wine which is popular in Germany, Canada and the US. If you want to surprise guests with something a bit different after dinner, try a bit of eiswein…
So what is ice wine?
The accidental product of an early freeze in Germany in the 1700s, eiswein is made from well ripened grapes which have not been picked but left on the vine and allowed to freeze. They are then harvested immediately and quickly pressed. The juice they produce is very concentrated and sweet, as the frozen water crystals are discarded with pressing. However this means that very small amounts of juice are produced. A further obstacle for eiswein vintners are the hungry birds and wild boar attempting to strip the ripe grapes from the vines before the weather can do its work. With such minimal yields – maybe 5-10% of the original crop gets used – eiswein production is something of a risky business.
An ice wine history
When German vintners woke up one morning in the 1700s to find their grape harvest frozen on the vines, they decided to try and make the best of a bad situation and continued with the pressing process as usual. The sweet, delicious nectar which came out became known as eiswein. Germans took the drink to Canada, where ice wine became popular in the 1970s. The warm summers and cold winters of British Columbia and Ontario are ideal for ice wine production and Canada and Germany are the world’s leasing producers of ice wine. Oregon, Michigan and Austria also have their own icy vineyards.
Eiswein is subject to German quality standards and wine making regulations. These stipulate that the grapes used must be frozen naturally on the vine. As this doesn’t occur every year, supplies are limited. Hardly any eiswein was made in 2006 or 2011.
The rules governing how eiswein is made are quite strict. The grapes used must be of good quality and free of diseases such as botrytis, which is characteristic of the grapes used to make certain other dessert wines. Riesling grapes are most commonly used to produce a balanced but rich ice wine with hints of honey, apricot and spices. While ice wine is sweet, it’s not cloying or sickly, balanced by a determined acid note.
This unusual, rare and unpredictable drink is an excellent way to confound wine snobs after dinner!