Lusciously sweet with balanced acidity, ice wine (eiswein) is a niche dessert wine produced in some of the coldest vineyards in the world. The frozen grapes are hand picked in the middle of the night when they are bursting with icy, sugary fruit flavors. The lively aromatics lead into richly sweet flavored peach and ginger notes that coat your tongue. Ice wine's unique style is a fascinating one to get to know.
What Is Ice Wine?
Ice wines are sweet, vibrant dessert wines made from naturally frozen grapes. There's a long tradition of making this highly concentrated dessert wine in both Austria and Germany, where it originated. Instead of harvesting the grapes in the fall, the berries are left on the vine into the winter. To become eiswein, the grapes must first freeze on the vine at around 20ºF (-7º C). By the time they have hung on the vines this long, the berries are deeply concentrated with sugary flavors.
How Ice Wines Are Made
There are strict rules the winery must adhere to for harvesting and pressing the grapes. Grapes are harvested by hand in the middle of the night when temperatures remain coldest and before the daytime sun hits the vines and starts to melt the snow. The water crystals within the grapes must be completely frozen solid at the time of picking. This is an incredibly tedious process, as the northerly vineyards in Germany and Austria are often quite steep. This time- and labor-intensive process is not for the faint of heart and can only be made in years with the ideal conditions, so not every year has eiswein production.
The grape bunches are carefully transported to the winery, where they remain at a cold temperature through pressing, extracting the highly concentrated juice for fermentation. The grapes are overly ripe at this stage and have exceptionally high levels of sugar, hitting anywhere between 35-40 Brix (°Bx). Because the yeast will eat through as much of the sugar as possible, the fermentation can be a long and delicate one, sometimes lasting up to six months.
When the ice wine is finally ready for bottling, it has a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) than many wines, often around 10%. The sweetness, however, is off the charts, ranging from 160-220 g/L of residual sugar. For perspective, a dry wine that you may be used to drinking would have 0-10 g/L of residual sugar. Therefore, ice wine is considered a dessert wine best sipped in small amounts.
Where Eiswein Comes From
Historically produced from the steep, cool climate vineyards in Germany and Austria, ice wine is now also produced in Canada. In Germany, a special Prädikat within the QMP (Qualitätswein mit Pradikät) specifies that the eiswein adheres to the rules above. Parts of Canada started producing ice wine by the 1970s, and it has grown to be a significant part of the wine landscape in the recent years.
The cool climate of the Finger Lakes region in New York state has also been producing ice wine since the 90s. Each of these places has a particular geography and climate that allows for this unique style of winemaking.
Grapes Used to Produce Ice Wine
There is a handful of cool climate varietals that can be made into ice wine. Riesling, vidal blanc, gewürztraminer, grüner veltliner, and chenin blanc are the most common white grapes used. Ice wine can be made from red grapes as well; these are often from cabernet franc or merlot.
Ice Wine Flavor Profile & Characteristics
With an overarching sweetness, ice wine also has a balanced acidity from the cool weather. Make no mistake, this is a lusciously sweet dessert wine that you'll want to enjoy in small amounts. But the northerly vineyards and cool conditions help to retain high acidity in the berries, which balances the intense sugar levels. The concentrated, juicy notes of stone fruit, citrus, dried tropical fruits, honey, and ginger are aromatic and intoxicating. An ice wine made with red grapes will tend to have notes of spiced strawberry and raspberry. Each tends to have noticeable minerality that ties the wine together. With the high amounts of sugar, ice wine has a thickly textured palate cut by a sharp acidity and matched with very soft and subtle tannins.
Storing & Serving Tips
Some ice wine will age longer than others because of the grape characteristics. In general, many are best enjoyed within the first five years. If you have a riesling, you could likely age it for longer. Store the wine at around 55°F (13°C), on its cork, away from light and temperature fluctuations.
When you're ready to drink your special bottle, be sure to chill it to 45-50°F (7-10°C). At this temperature, you'll experience all the aromas and fruit notes in the wine in a crisp way while avoiding a cloyingly sweet sensation on your tongue. If you have dessert wine glasses, this is a great time to use them! If not, don't worry, just be sure to pour a significantly smaller glass than your normal zin or Chablis. FYI, a typical dessert wine pour is two ounces.
Drink Ice Wine & Pairing Ice Wine
Ice wine is a dessert wine and therefore is really best after a meal or as a nightcap. If you were to split a bottle of this during the evening, you'll likely go to bed feeling unwell and wake up with a raging sugar headache. While the category "dessert wine" may suggest it should be paired with a dessert, the sugar on top of sugar is a bit of a tricky pairing to conjure. Ice wine is sweet enough on its own that if you pair it with a crème brulée or something similar, you're going to overdo it on the sweet scale. If you're looking for a pairing for ice wine, it's best to stick to something like a fruit and cheese plate or a subtly spiced biscuit. Blue cheeses pair particularly well, as the piquant notes play on the sweet, acidic fruit notes in the wine. When thinking about ice wine pairing, go for something that will balance the sweetness in the wine rather than bringing more to the table. Don't worry if you're struggling to find a match. Ice wine is delicious sipped solo.
A Few Ice Wines to Try
Interested in trying a bottle or two of the sweet stuff? Because ice wine is a bit of a niche product that can only be made in years with the best conditions, you'll need to search it out in a speciality bottle shop. Here are few labels to look for when perusing the shelves.
- Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein is a German favorite and a great representation of the Mosel with floral aromatics, candied peach, dried pear, viscous honey, mouth-watering salinity, and lime zest. If you find this classic label on the shelf, don't hesitate. You won't regret it.
- Inniskillin Vidal Pearl Ice Wine is a Canadian wine from Ontario with vibrant aromas of apricot, mango, and honey. A palate of ripe peach poached in brown sugar syrup with racy acidity makes this ice wine full yet balanced.
- Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff makes his eiswein in the grape-growing region of Nahe in Germany. This richly textured riesling is layered with notes of pear, apricot, zippy green apple, nutty marzipan, lemon custard, and beeswax. A real gem.
A Sweet Treat
If you are into dessert wines or just curious to try this unique wine style, head to your local bottle shop and search out an ice wine from the New or Old World to get a taste. There really isn't anything quite like the bold yet balanced sweetness of wine picked from frozen grapes. Just remember, this is a small-scale sipping wine with big flavor.