When the charms of deep winter begin to run thin, at least we can thank the cold for bringing us ice wine.
Made from naturally frozen grapes that have been left on the vine far into winter, ice wine is one of winter’s most warming—and spirit-lifting—offerings. Here’s what you need to know before you pour your new favorite winter wine.
Ice wine, or eiswein, as the category is known in Germany and Austria, made its modern era debut in the late-18th century or mid-19th century, depending on whom you ask. Either way, its origin story involves an unexpectedly harsh winter and a vintner who wanted to make the most of his frozen grapes—making liquid gold from proverbial lemons.
How Ice wine Is Made
The sweet, low-alcohol wine is traditionally made from very ripe, frozen grapes in Canada, Germany, Austria, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, and Northern Michigan. Workers, often among the vines in the dark or early dawn, wear gloves to protect their hands from the cold as they pick. When the grapes are pressed, the sweet, high-acid, and concentrated juice is separated from the ice formed by its water content. The ice is discarded, and the remaining juice goes to make ice wine, resulting in a wine that is “super sweet, super flavored and super pure,” said Lisa Perrotti-Brown, a master of wine and editor-in-chief of Robert Parker Wine Advocate.
“Essentially, freezing the grapes is all about taking a good proportion of the water content out of them, thereby concentrating all the other components. So, what the winemaker has left to work with is pure grape with the volume turned way up,” she said.
Some ice wine makers, namely those based in climates that aren’t cold enough for grapes to ice over naturally, take a shortcut, freezing their grapes manually in a commercial freezer after harvesting. But in many regions, the term “ice wine” can only legally be applied to vintages made naturally. United States law, for instance, stipulates the term only applies to wine made from grapes frozen pre-harvest, and in Canada, ice wine must be made from grapes picked off the vine at or below -8 Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Why all the fuss? The big difference, Perrotti-Brown explained, lies less between the two processes than the types of grapes used, where they come from, and how they’re grown.
“If we’re talking about naturally-produced ice wine from certain parts of Germany or Canada, then these will largely be high-quality varieties, ideally suited to the climate and left to ripen on the vine far beyond the limits of a normal growing season,” explained Perotti-Brown. “This results in very intense, better balanced, and ultimately more complex wines.”
What Does Ice Wine Taste Like?
Ice wines tend to be made from aromatic, fruit-driven grapes like Riesling and Vidal Blanc; other varieties include Gewürztraminer, Seyval blanc, Kerner, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Muscat Ottonel, Gamay, and Ehrenfelser. The type of grape, of course, will affect the flavor of any given ice wine, but no matter the variety, ice wines tend to be extremely concentrated.
Courtney E. Schiessl, a sommelier at Marta in New York City likened it to “a perfectly ripe droplet of sugar-rich fruit exploding on the palate, unctuous and mouth-coating from the residual sugar.” Drinkers can “expect lots of juicy peach, Meyer lemon, apricot, or candied apple flavors,” she said. The best bottles balance all that fruit with plenty of acidity to brighten the finish and keep things refreshing. “This is the key to a good ice wine, in order to balance out the sugar. Otherwise, the wine would be too sickly sweet.”
To bring out the best qualities in the wine and food in your dessert course, Schiessl recommends serving a chilled, 2-ounce glass of ice wine alongside a lemon custard tart or peach cobbler. Ice wine also stands beautifully on its own at the end of a meal, especially after a dinner in which you’ve overindulged.
“It takes a lot of labor, hard work, and love to make ice wine,” said Harsh Dayalani, sommelier at New York City’s Tapestry. “Some wine connoisseurs might say that if paired with dessert, you miss the point of drinking it on its own.”
What’s It Going to Cost Me?
Be prepared to pay for all this pleasure. Mild winter temperatures have affected Germany’s eiswein production, and with unpredictable weather and fewer hard frosts, their crop can be small or nonexistent some years. But leaving grapes on the vine post-harvest is inherently risky, and even in the best conditions, ice wine is expensive to make.
“The process means it takes a lot of grapes just to make one bottle,” Perrotti-Brown said. “Whether naturally or artificially produced, a good ice wine is not going to be cheap.” Expect to pay at least $30 and, more likely, somewhere in the ballpark of $50-100.
Ready to give ice wine a try? Here are a few of our favorites: