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Cold comfort: blind tasting the world’s best icewines

While the heartlands of Icewine are Canada, Germany and Austria, there is a Chinese expression, from Changyu Pioneer Wine Co, that can hold its own against the established players, as Patrick Schmitt MW discovers

THERE’S A niche in the world of wine that represents many pinnacles, but few column inches. It’s a category of wines that is miniscule in scale but massive in terms of production costs. They represent the lowest-yielding output from any single vine, and, often, the highest possible sugar concentration in wine.

Not only are there only very few places in the world with the right natural conditions to produce them, but even in these areas, only certain years have the correct weather to create them. They are Icewines. So specialist are these drinks, they can only be made in a narrow range of latitude, needing winter temperatures low enough to freeze the grapes on the vine, but not so low that the extreme conditions will kill the plant. As a result, there are just a few places in the world that can produce these natural, intense, deliciously sweet wines – although there’s a new player in this rarefied market.

Longstanding areas for Icewine production include Germany and Austria – although only in certain years when the conditions are right – along with Canada, where Icewine production is more reliable, with much of it based on the Vidal grape. As for the newcomer, that’s China, specifically Liaoning province in the far northeastern corner of the country.

This area is so important for the production of these deeply coloured and intensely sweet, pure wines, it’s called ‘the golden Icewine valley’. It was a sample from this part of China made by the Changyu Pioneer Wine Co that we decided to sample in London. Such an event was a first: a blind tasting of nothing but Icewines, and only from the very best producers in this niche business – including one of the most expensive wines in the world, an Icewine from Egon Müller’s Scharzhofberger estate, costing over £1,000 for a half bottle.

So how did the Chinese contender perform. Well, despite being more than 25 times cheaper than the sweet Riesling from Muller, it garnered a higher average score from our Master of Wine and Master Sommelier tasters. And, while it may not have achieved the highest total of the tasting, it was not far behind Icewine producers with decades of experience crafting this specialist wine.

And scores aside, this Icewine was loved by the tasters for its beautiful appearance, pure, exotic fruit expression, mouth-filling sweetness and balancing freshness. It was also the least expensive of the tasting. And this meant something important. Next time you venture into the wonderful, indulgent, unique category of Icewine, don’t forget that’s there’s a new player to consider – China. And if it hails from the Golden Ice Wine Valley, and it’s been made by Changyu, then it’s going to be good, and, importantly, good value.

The results of the blind wine tasting in order tasted (with ABV, residual sugar and approximate price per half bottle)

Wine Score
Golden Diamond Icewine Vidal, Huan Ren, Liao Ning, China, 2017 (11.4%, 150g/l, £27) 93
Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brucke Riesling Eiswein, Nahe, Germany, 2008 (7%, 300g/l, £100) 96
Alois Kracher Cuvée Eiswein, Burgenland, Austria, 2008 (11.5%, 163g/l, £100) 91
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Niagara, Canada, 2017 (9.5%, 250g/l, £50) 95
Andrew Peller, Signature Series, Riesling, Icewine, Niagara, Canada, 2017 (10.5%, 228g/l, £40) 96
Egon Müller Scharzhofberger, Riesling, Eiswein, Mosel, Germany, 2016 (7%, NA, £1,000) 91
Weingut Markus Huber Berg Riesling Eiswein, 2016, Traisental, Austria (6%, 225g/l, £50) 91
Dr Loosen Riesling Eiswein, Mosel, Germany, 2016 (7%, 143g/l, £40) 92
Whistler Riesling Icewine, Okanagan Valley, Canada, 2015 (11.9%, 145g/l, £50) 94
Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Eiswein, Kampala, Austria, 2016 (11%, 226g/l, £50) 97
Schneider Riesling Eiswein, Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, Nahe, Germany, 2012 (7%, 321g/l, £60) 98
Becker Pinot Noir Eiswein, Pfalz, Germany, 2018 (7%, 176g/l, £20) 91

Comments from the judges on Golden Diamond Icewine

Eric Zwiebel MS
“It was pleasant, with tropical fruit flavours from mango to papaya; it was exotic and sweet without too much alcohol.”Svetoslav Manolev MS
“It was a really enticing style. It was pure, and had a beautiful balance while being really complex. And for the price point, I thought it was good value and a really enjoyable wine.”

Simon Field MW
“It is a forward style, with notes of tarte tatin. The key to Icewine is to harness that amazing level of sugar with the acidity, when seldom is there any botrytis in sight, and we had wines that fared differently but I thought that this was one of the more successful. Everything about it is pure Icewine, and it tasted excellent.”

Anne McHale MW
“I was very impressed by the Chinese Icewine. I have tried ones before, but this one showed really well today, it was really complex.”

The tasters

Patrick Schmitt MW
Patricia Stefanowicz MW
Simon Field MW
Eric Zwiebel MS
David Round MW
Svetoslav Manolev MS
Anne McHale MW

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