What’s with all the spellings?
Ice wine has German roots, which is why you will commonly see the German spellings for ice, “Eis” and Wine, “Wein” combined as Eiswein. You will also come across a host of incorrect mixes of the two languages creating spellings such as Eiswine and icewein. You may also find it called Vin de Glacier and Ledove Vino. But all of them refer to one thing: Wine, made from grapes which have frozen on the vine.
One would expect ice wine to have a long history in winemaking, but it does not. In fact, ice wine has only been around for about 200 years. In his book on the subject, John Schreiner tells the story of how ice wine was born: A German winemaker, surprised by an early frost, decided to press the frozen grapes anyway. However, he separated the frozen grapes from the rest of his vintage so as to avoid spoiling the whole lot. To the vintner’s own surprise, the resulting juice was sweet and pure.
Ever since, ice wine has been produced to some degree in all wine producing countries of the Northern hemisphere, including Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland and others. It has been barely more than a decade, though, that ice wine has become a coveted jewel amongst wine lovers, as for many years its atypical production method gave it the presumption of being a “gimmicky” wine.
The difference between ice wine and other sweet wines, such as TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese), Sauternes, Beerenauslese or Schilfwein, is that ice wines show a much clearer fruit and varietal character. This is due to its production method: while other sweet wines are made from botrytis (“noble rot”) affected grapes or grapes dried for weeks on mats of straw, ice wine grapes are usually healthy at the time of harvest. This causes the grapes to retain a good amount of acidity, which gives an ice wine a certain kind of raciness when compared to its dessert wine cousins.
True ice wine is that made from grapes which are kept on the vine until the temperature sinks below 19, 4 Fahrenheit or -7 degree Celsius.
Some producers in regions that allow to do so (namely the US and New Zealand) have started producing simulated ice wine by tossing the grapes into a commercial freezer.
Does nature impart nuances and layers of taste to the grapes while they remain on the vine, sometimes past Christmas and into the new year, that a commercial freezer can not provide? Most wine lovers don’t consider this to be a serious question. Simulated ice wines are therefore considered to be of lower value and will typically sell at half the price of ice wine made the traditional way.
Both methods do employ the same basic trick though: a grape is made up mostly of water, and since only the water will freeze at those low temperatures, the sweet grape juice can be pressed from the grapes while the water remains trapped in the skins of the grapes in the form of pressed ice.
This is also the reason for it’s high price: when you consider that the better part of each grape is deliberately lost, leaving behind only a small percentage of the harvest, which in itself is no easy pickings as it must be done at night so that the sun will not melt the ice, leaving the workers to, as it were, freeze their clusters off (and their fingers)….well, that’s a lot of work for a small amount of sweet nectar.
It is also essential to harvest at the very first frost night of the year, because grapes left on the vine to go through a freeze-thaw-refreeze cycle can pick up unwanted flavors. Winemakers are therefore often nervous wrecks by the time the harvest is over as they will have spent night after night waking up many times to check the temperature. The wineries of Burgenland in Austria have a well working network of winemakers who will check on the temperature in the different vineyards and call each other when harvest can commence.
“Keeping the harvest workers ready can be a tedious and embarrassing task” says Franz Heiss. He will often have to call a dozen harvest workers for the fifth or sixth time, only to see another night pass without the desired temperatures being reached.
On top of this dance around the thermometer, an ice wine harvest is at times not even successful. Franz Heiss tells a story of when he started harvest at midnight at a comfortable minus eight degrees Celsius. Nobody thought much of a bank of fog moving in during picking, but they soon found out that this fog had lifted the temperature, resulting in slightly thawed grapes by the time they reached the cellar. Because the water in the grapes will now dilute the wine down, the legal requirements for an ice wine weren’t met any longer. Instead of an ice wine, this one became an Auslese wine, very much to Heiss’s dismay.
The fact that the winemakers have to literally wait for the frost, and often it will never come and all the grapes and work are lost, means that the grapes stay on the vine and go through a full circle of ripening all the way to a state of being shriveled down to brown raisin-like grapes by late December.
Extra time on the vine means extra work for the winemaker. The grapes need to be defended against the “free harvest workers”: the starling birds, small deer and snacking boars.
In Austria the first frost hits right around Christmas and quite a few winemakers can tell stories of Santa arriving a day late as the ice wine harvest had to first be brought into the winery and pressed immediately.
A good ice wine is clear and vibrant in its flavors and aromas. Amongst many other contenders, the aromatic Scheurebe grape has properties that make it a popular choice for use in ice wine .
The most Austrian ice wine, one could argue, is an ice wine from Austria’s flagship grape, the Grüner Veltliner. In fact, many producers prefers to use Grüner Veltliner in their ice wine because they are more resistant to botrytis, so the end result has notes as clear as, say, an icicle. For a fine example, try the Fahrenheit 19, which is from the Winzerkeller Andau and is 100% Gruner Veltliner.
No need to mention that our ice wines are the real thing. In Austria, where wine laws are strictest in all of Europe, only ice wines created by Mother Nature are allowed to carry the proud name, and the winemakers wouldn’t want it any other way.