The grape harvest is done for the year. Now it’s time to ferment, craft, and age the wines. But there is still one special grape harvest yet to be done, one that will not take place until sometime between November and January, after the grapes have frozen.
Ice wine is a type of wine that is produced from grapes frozen on the vine. These frozen grapes provide a more concentrated, super sweet liquid that is crafted as a dessert wine. Although other wines may use the phrase “ice-like," only grapes frozen on the vine, before fermentation, are true ice wines.
Legend has it that ice wines came about in the late 1700’s when a German winemaker did not pick his grapes in time to avoid a sudden frost and they froze on the vine. Refusing to discard the frozen, and apparently ruined grapes, the winemaker proceeded to make his wine. The end result amounted to less volume, but a much sweeter and more concentrated wine. Hence, the first eiswein (ice wine) had been produced.
Although Germany is the land where ice wine began, the largest producer of the product is Canada. During the 1980’s, Canadian wine makers realized that their region had the perfect cold climate for regular and exceptional ice wine production. (Or icewines, as it is spelled in Canada.)
In 1991, Inniskillin, a Canadian winery located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, entered its 1989 Vidal Icewine into the Vinexpo Wine competition in Bordeaux, France. The icewine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur, and began the world’s interest in icewines.
The Canadian VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) regulates the winemaking process and sets the standards that must be met for a true icewine to be produced in Canada. This includes that only healthy, naturally frozen grapes may be used – no artificial freezing is allowed. The temperatures must reach -8°C (17°F.) Harvesters must be ready to go when the winemaker determines that the grapes are ready. Frozen grapes are then picked by hand in the early morning darkness. A VQA-appointed agent monitors the harvest and will stop the picking if the temperatures rise above -8°C. The wineries and barns are also kept cold, so that the grapes do not thaw out during the crushing process.
Waiting for these perfect harvesting conditions can be chancy – the final grape crop of the year must be protected from birds and foraging animals, and temperatures must be monitored to make sure they do not become too extreme. If the freeze does not come quickly enough after the grapes are ripe, they can rot on the vine and the harvest will be lost.
Canadian ice wines have been called “liquid gold” with good reason. Every year, Canada produces gold medal winners in competitions around the world. Icewine is known for its intense rich sweetness, imparting the aromas peach, pear, apple, sometimes a nutty essence. Depending on the grape and crafting, the full flavors of honey and caramel may shine through, or the wine may have more tropic fruit overtones of citrus and mango. The alcohol level of ice wines is usually between 7 and 12%.
The main grapes used for ice wines are Riesling, Vidal, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Franc. However, there are several winemakers around the world who are trying different grapes to see if the results are as pleasing. Most are crafted to be medium or full-bodied wines.
Besides Canada, and occasionally Germany, ice wines are sometimes produced in Austria, France, and Sweden. And, in Washington State and Michigan in the U.S.
Many other states make “ice-like” or "ice wine style" wines, but these are crafted from late harvest grapes that have been picked and then frozen. Although less expensive that a true ice wine, the end result is a wine that lacks the intensely flavorful richness of an authentic ice wine.
Ice wines can be expensive, but the reasons are understandable. Due to the strict guidelines for ice wine production, the yields are usually as little as 5 to 15% of a typical grape harvest. True Canadian Icewines can cost from $25 to over $100 for a 375 ml bottle.
So what can be served with a good ice wine? Since this is a dessert wine, the selections may include desserts with fruit in them like an apple cobbler, peach crisp, or cherry-covered cheesecake. Wanting to serve an ice wine more as an aperitif? Consider serving it with pate’ and a mild, soft cheese.
And you can’t go wrong with a chilled glass by the fire. Once open, an ice wine can be kept, corked, in the fridge for a few weeks.