Everything you need to know about icewine
As the normal European harvest season starts to wind down, some producers are now turning their attention to their late-harvesting versions.
Icewine is one of the latest-harvesting of all, and although higher average annual temperatures have affected yields in traditional production regions like Germany and Canada, new countries like China now have the opportunity to make their own varieties and cash in on a very premium product.
With one of the stars of this year’s Apprentice series launching her own icewine at the Wine & Spirits Show this week, we wanted to enlighten our readers on this niche but expensive wine.
Keep scrolling to find out all about the hard-to-find serve.
What is it, and how is it made
Let’s start at with the basics. Ice wine (or Eiswein in German) is a type of dessert wine that can only be produced in cold climates. It is made with grapes that have been frozen while they’re still on the vine. This is because the sugars in the fruit, unlike water, do not freeze, so while the grapes themselves are frozen, it’s possible to concentrate their flavours when it’s time to harvest. Unlike other sweet wines like Sauternes, the grapes aren’t affected by noble rot, and so their characteristic refreshing sweetness balanced by high acidity. is entirely reliant on the power of the elements.
Although we know that ice wine was being made in ancient Rome, the first modern example comes from Franconia in Germany, in 1794.
While frozen, the must (which I’ll use instead of grape juice given the fruit is partially frozen), is then pressed using a special machine (see video below for a run-down from Niagara College in Canada, resulting in a smaller amount of more concentrated, very sweet wine.
The whole process from harvest to press can take around six hours, and must only be done when the weather conditions are right, so it can be risky (in some years, the grapes might not freeze at all). Sometimes harvests might not happen until after the new year.
The juice is then separated from the seeds and stems before fermentation begins. It may take months to complete the fermentation because of the grapes’ high sugar levels, and the wines can age for many years.
Some wineries do freeze their grapes artificially — a process called cryoextraction — although it’s only permitted in countries that don’t normally produce icewine and don’t have regulations for its production in place.
Although in theory you can make icewine from anything, typical grapes used include Riesling, considered to be the noblest variety by German winemakers; Vidal, which is popular in Ontario, Canada; and Cabernet Franc. Some producers are experimenting with other grapes like Chenin Blanc and Merlot. Those made from white grapes are usually pale yellow or light gold in colour when they are young and deepen with age, or pink when made with red grapes.
Why is it so expensive?
A combination of risk, labour-intensive winemaking and government regulations make it difficult to find a cheap icewine. In some years, the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot or are otherwise lost. In fact, German producers are making less icewine now than they were in the 90s and 80s thanks to rising annual temperatures linked to climate change. This means its production is limited to a handful of countries where temperatures consistently drop below freezing over the winter.
Freezing the grapes also creates a naturally lower yield, so there is less wine in circulation overall, making it rarer and more valuable.
As well as this some countries, such as Austria, Germany, the United States, and Canada, require that the grapes have to be frozen naturally, so cost-saving artificial processes have to be ruled out.
Where can I find it?
Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers of ice wines, and about 75% of the ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario.
But ice wine is also made in European countries where frosts can be guaranteed. Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland all have icewine-making precedents.
Japanese icewine is also a sough-after product. Japanese producers make a red ice wine each winter at the Furano Winery. Chinese wineries, meanwhile, have started making icewines of their own. In the US, you can find icewine producers in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.
What should I serve it with?
As it’s unaffected by noble rot and fermented slowly, icewines retain many primary characteristics which set them apart from their botryatised counterparts. It is luscious, intensely flavoured, with aromas and flavours of ripe tropical fruits like lychee and pineapple when made with white grapes, although wines made with red varieties can give more concentrated strawberry flavours.
Much like Sauternes, icewine is a perfect match for strong cheeses such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or Parmesan. Milder cheeses aren’t strong enough to stand up to the drink’s lusciousness, but cheese-based desserts — cheesecake, for example — are.
Salty hours d’oeuvres like tapenade or salted nuts both enhance the fruity acidity of the wine, while balancing out the high sugar levels.
The high acidity also means you can opt for richer foods like patés. If you’ve tried Foie Gras with Sauternes, try swapping it out for icewine next time.
Finally, similar to Riesling, Icewines go well with spicy foods, which are often hard to match with wine. This is because of its higher sugar content. Curries and aromatic Thai dishes which are usually difficult to match would go well with an icewine with pronounced tropical flavours.
Red icewines, made with Cabernet Franc, shine when paired with richer desserts made with chocolate, which bring out their red fruit flavours.