Welcome to the wonderful world of ice wine, one of the sweetest mistakes nature has ever made.
It’s hard to know how anyone would ever purposefully make ice wine. It might not look like it, but true ice wine is one of the hardest, most misery-stricken wines to produce. Just imagine yourself outside in sub-zero temperatures, in the dark, in the middle of a mid-west winter (or on a steep hill in Germany), trying to harvest grapes.
There is no doubt that ice wine is one of the wine treasures of the world.
It’s one of those wines some pretend to hate. After all, it has almost double the sweetness of Coca-Cola. Once you taste a decent ice wine, though, it really is hard to despise the wonderful gift that a marriage of grapes and a cold climate can create.
Ice Wine, You’re So Fine
A Lil’ History
It’s been supposed that in Franken, Germany, during a particularly cold winter in 1794, winemakers were forced to create a product from the grapes available for harvest. The resulting wines from that vintage had an amazingly high sugar content, along with great flavor. Thus, the technique became popularized in Germany. By the mid-1800s, the Rheingau region was making what the Germans called eiswein.
Making Ice Wine
The secret to ice wine is processing frozen grapes at around 20 ºF (-7º C). The frozen grapes are brought into the winery where they are transferred–thousands of hard, icy marbles–into a grape crusher and then into a grape press. Many heritage grape presses have broken under the pressure of attempting to press the concentrated grape sugar syrup out of frozen grapes. Only about 10–20% of the liquid in these frozen grapes is used for ice wine and because the juice is so sweet (anywhere from ~32–46 Brix), it can take anywhere from 3–6 months–a long, slow, finicky fermentation–to make ice wine. When it’s all done, wines have around 10% ABV and a range of sweetness from around 160–220 g/L of RS.
Cool climate wine varieties used to make ice wine include Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Vidal Blanc (a French Hybrid variety).
Grapes Used To Produce Ice Wine
The grapes that grow well in cold climates make the best ice wines and these include: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, and Vidal Blanc. Cabernet Franc ice wines are rare, with a brilliant orange-ruby hue, but can be found with relative ease from Ontario, Canada.
Grapes must be picked frozen from the vine to be called a true ice wine. Vineyards in Michigan by Andrew McFarlane
True Ice Wine
True ice wine requires a cold climate where grapes are harvested frozen on the vine. Fortunately, in Canada, Germany, Austria, and the US, dessert wines are not allowed to be labeled as ice wine if grapes are commercially frozen. You will see these products usually labeled as “iced wine” or simply “dessert wine.” So, if you’re looking for true ice wine, be a wary shopper and read the labels or look up the production information.
Pairing Food With Ice Wine
As ice wine is a dessert wine with explosive fruit flavors and on the high-sweetness end of the spectrum, you’ll want to pair it with somewhat subtle desserts containing enough fat to balance the taste profile. If you prefer more savory, late night snacks, a great pairing option with ice wine would be softer cheeses.
A few desserts that pair well with ice wine: cheesecake, vanilla pound cake, ice cream, coconut ice cream, fresh fruit panna cotta, and white chocolate mousse.
Expect To Spend Over $30
The cost of production is the primary reason why ice wines are sold in half bottles and why prices are typically high. It will typically take 4–5 times as many grapes to make ice wine. Still, because the market for these wines is so small, it is possible to find ice wines from the US and Austria around the $30 mark (for 375 ml bottle). Canadian ice wine, though, is typically over $50 for a 375 ml bottle. If you see ice wines for a lot cheaper, they’re likely of poor quality, commercially frozen (“iced wine” or “Riesling Ice”), or adulterated in some way.
Aging Ice Wine
Most people believe ice wines can age only about 10 years, but certain varieties (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner) have shown to age much longer than that. This has everything to do with the wine’s acidity level and lack of volatile acidity (ice wines can build up too much VA during fermentation–a yeast thing–which will cause them to age more quickly). Wines with high sugar content and high acidity are likely to age easily for 30–50 years. Of course, longterm aging of ice wines will change their taste profile slowly; over time aged wines become darker in color, sweeter tasting, and gain tertiary aging flavors of molasses, maple and hazelnut.
Up Next: Dessert Wines
Learn more about the major classifications of dessert wines to find new potential favorites.