Eisweins and Ice Wines: Baby, It's
Cold Out There - February 7, 2007
We all know that, behind the scenes, there's a lot of hard,
unglamorous work required in the producing of wines. For
any who have ever picked grapes here in Northern New Mexico,
you well know this is easily some of the hardest, stickiest
labor around. If you're a producer of ice wine or, in Germany,
Eiswein; then most grape pickers have it pretty easy.
credit: Black Star Farms, MI
Imagine having to go out and pick grapes,
in the dead of Winter, the temperature below 20 F, on a
steep 45 slope, a little miner's lamp attached to your head,
at 5:00 in the morning, freezing your kiester off!! THAT
is what you call hard labor!! Yet that is what winemakers
of Ice Wine, in Germany, Canada, and other Northern climes
where grapes are grown, do every Winter. This article discusses
this rare genre of dessert wine.
Pure and simple, ice wine is made from frozen
grapes. The grapes are harvested in the wee hours of the
morning and immediately pressed. The frozen water remains
behind in the grapes. The extracted juice, about 15%-20%
of the normal yield, is very high in both sugar and acid.
This intense syrup is then fermented normally to yield a
very sweet, briskly acidic, dessert wine.
Germany was the first country to make ice
wine; records indicate one being made in Franconia in 1794.
Through the 1800's and into the 1900's, Eiswein were made
infrequently as the cold weather dictated. It was done when
there was a severe freeze and grapes were still hanging
on the vines; not intentionally, but as a means of salvaging
an otherwise lost crop. These early Eisweins were very rare
and not given much serious thought by wine connoisseurs
of the day; and used primarily for personal consumption,
with few bottles making it to market.
It was not until the 1960's that German
winemakers got serious about Eiswein and set about to make
them intentionally, as a matter of course. A block of the
vineyard is set aside for Eiswein production. And then the
wait begins, after the regular harvest is completed, for
a hard freeze to provide the necessary conditions. After
the first light freeze, the vines lose their leaves, leaving
the grapes naked, exposed to the vagaries of nature. Often
the vines are covered by bird netting to prevent those predatations.
Sometines they are covered with plastic sheeting to prevent
rot damage from the rains and snows. Once the temperature
hits 19 F or below, it is legally permitted to harvest the
grapes and make the Eiswein. Sometimes, this is not until
January of the following year.
Obviously, it takes either a very dedicated
winemaker or a nut case to want to make this kind of wine.
And he must have a bunch of masochistic friends at his beck
and call, awaiting morning summons to come pick. Clearly,
because of the effort involved, these wines will not be
Over the years, the Germans have become
the acknowledged master of these (natural) ice wines.
But their cold growing climate is hardly unique. The Canadians
have embraced this genre with a passion, primarily in Ontario
and British Columbia. The first Canadian ice wine was made
in 1973. Walter Hainle, a former textile salesman from Hamburg,
was awaiting delivery of the remaining Riesling crop from
a grower in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. A surprise
frost hit the vineyard afore the last of the grapes were
harvested, and he saw his opportunity to make history, producing
about 30 litres of the nectar.
As is often the case, technology steps in.
Sometimes it is to make a "better" product; oft
it's only to make it "easier". In the mid-'80's,
Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, a stalwart afficianado of all
things Riesling, got to thinking (always a dangerous proposition
in his case) about making an ice wine. Clearly, California
is seldom going to have the hard freeze necessary to accomodate
his desires. Bingo!! Why not use a freezer...or even the
local morgue.. he reasoned. After tinkering at it several
years, Randall took a load of Muscat Canelli grapes to a
nearby cold storage facility in 1986 , froze them solid,
brought them back to the winery and crushed them. He labeled
it Vin de Glace ("wine of ice cream"). That label
sneaked by the Feds somehow. After two years, they caught
it and issued Randall a cease and desist. So, in 1988, he
changed the label to Vin de Glaciere ("wine of the
ice box") and has been producing it ever since.
In point of fact, this technique was first
tried by Dr.Hans Ambrosi in 1966 in South Africa with Chenin
Blanc grapes. The wine was not very good and the method
discarded. Technically the
process is termed cyro-extraction and is sometimes used
in France to produce Sauternes in rainy
years. But it has been, based on Randall's success, widely
adopted in countries where weather
conditions do not permit "natural" ice wines,
like California, New York, New Zealand, Australia, and Slovenia.
There is some disagreement over the quality
of "freezer" ice wines vs. "natural"
ice wines. In some places (Canada and Germany), the use
of the term ice wine is forbidden unless the grapes are
naturally frozen on the vine. Of the ice wines I've tasted
over the years, I've not been able to detect a significant,
consistent difference. What does ice wine taste like? It
typically ranges from slightly sweet to syrupy sweet. The
process always produces a highly acid wine that nicely balances
the elevated sugar level on the palate. Oftentimes, in the
"natural" ice wines, there can be strange aromas
and flavors from the grape's exposure to nature.
How do ice wines age? The high sugars and
high acidities SHOULD make a wine that ages very well. In
practice, their aging is highly variable. I seldom see the
increases in complexity and character one would expect.
Oftentimes, it simply developes a slightly nutty, oxidized
character. What's good locally? The Rudolf Muller Riesling
'04 Eiswein from the Pfalz is one of the best German examples,
and very reasonably priced ($14). The Alois Kracher Eiswein
(freezer) from Austria is exceptional (and expensive at
$47). One of the most interesting ice wines is the Pinnacle
Ice Apple wine from Quebec. It has a bracing acidity and
speaks essence of apple. What about New Mexico ice wine?
To my knowledge, none have been produced. A natural NM ice
wine would probably be prohibitively expensive. But a freezer
ice wine absolutely makes sense. I'd LOVE to see Henry Street
produce a Ponderosa Vineyards Riesling ice wine or Bruce
Noel a Los Luceros Seyval Vin du Frigo. It COULD be done,
the results would be interesting.