Ice wines are a luxury that many of us reserve for special occasions, so why not indulge a little during this wonderful Festive Season? Here, we provide some basic information about the making of these delicious international palette pleasers.
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.
Through December—and sometimes into January or February—ice wine 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.
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.
Even when netting is installed to protect from birds, 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.
However, 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.
So, now that we have a pretty clear idea of what ice wine is, what is the best way to serve this delicacy?
The answer is: chilled. An hour or two in the refrigerator will allow the ice wine to reach the ideal drinking temperature of 10C (50F) - 12C (54F).
Due to its sweet nature, the traditional time to serve it has been at the end of the meal, when most people already feel full. Which is why many producers feel that ice wine should not be called a dessert wine, as this stereotypes the wine into being consumed only at the end of a meal, when satiated palettes may not be able to fully appreciate the lovely fruit flavors involved.
Conversely, French sauternes is often served at the beginning of a meal - with dishes such as foie gras and cheeses. Ice wine works equally well, and it also can handle main entrees such as seafood, lobster, scallops and meals with a caramelized preparations due to its texture, viscosity and weight.
Sparkling ice wine undergoes a similar process to Italian spumanti: Before the open vat fermentation is completed and when alcohol level has reached a level of about nine percent, the vat is closed so that the remaining CO2 is trapped inside and dissolves back into the wine making it fizzy. The fizziness helps to soften the perception of sweetness on the palate, allowing sparkling ice wines to truly complement foods such as veined cheese, nuts and fruit desserts.
If served with dessert, a half bottle will serve six to eight people with about two ounces apiece: the wine is so sweet that a little goes a long way. But just because the pour may be small, the glasses don’t have to be. Skip those tiny golf-ball-sized dessert glasses, which don’t allow enough room to swirl the wine and enjoy its aromas. Instead, use a regular white wine glass (our eco-friendly, unbreakable, stemless glasses work perfectly), such as the kind you’d use for sauvignon blanc.
To age or not to age your ice wine:
Ice wine doesn’t need to be aged to enjoy its fresh fruit flavors. In fact, many producers recommend drinking their wine before they’re older than four years after they’re bottled. After a decade, top ice wines turn amber and their fresh fruit flavors take on more honeyed, nutty aromas. The high natural acidities and sugars act as great preservatives for ice wine, so you can cellar it according to the style you prefer.
Original articles by Anna Lee C. Iijima, Sean Sullivan and Roger Voss for Wine Enthusiast and
Natalie MacLean @ nataliemaclean.com. Photos courtesy of Pinterest.