Q and A: Ice Wine

Stephen Asprinio answers your questions.

I just want to thank the readers of my new wine blog. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I enjoy reading the questions that have been posted on the various subjects that have been discussed thus far. From time to time, I’d like to answer some of these questions. Last month one of the readers asked for a discussion on ice wine, so here we go.

Jane Claire wrote: I agree with Elisheba. I think you are incredible, Stephen! Anyway, I've just been introduced to ice wine, which is a very sweet wine that has been made from grapes that have been frozen on the vine. It's usually sold in half bottles and is a bit pricey. The wine I tasted was Austrian, and I think it was Hopler. It's also made in Germany and Canada. I am not a fan of sweet wines, but this was indeed quite delicious. Stephen, will you please discuss ice wine (or Eiswein) sometime in the future? That would be so great. *Jane posted on October 13, 2007 at 9:52 PM

Ice wine is defined as sweet wine made from frozen grapes (on the vine, not in a freezer). The water in the grape freezes, though the sugar and other dissolved solids do not. When the grapes are pressed, a highly concentrated liquid with a low water content and high sugar content is produced. This “liquid gold” is then fermented into ice wine. In an unexpected frost during the winter 1794, several German farmers made the first attempt at ice wine, desperately trying to salvage their lost harvest. What resulted was the birth of a whole new method for sweet wine production, and consequently years after, some of the finest ice wines in the world.

Though Germany was the first to produce ice wine, as well as German Riesling ice wine being one of the unique treasures of the wine world, Germany is not the leader of the ice wine industry. Ice wine is produced in Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Where it is the most prominent, though, is Canada. Canadian ice wine has been on the rise the past several decades, and today, Canada is the leader in the ice wine industry. My favorite ice wine from Canada is Pilliterri Estates.

Food comes to mind when speaking of ice wine. Ice wine presents itself in a unique manner and a non-traditional approach when it comes to food and wine pairing. First is the idea of pouring the wine or using the wine simply in its raw state, uncooked, on food. In many ways, ice wine has gastronomic parallels to aged balsamic vinegar (or reduced balsamic vinegar, which is a disgusting trend from the 80s) in regards to using it on food. Ice wine is rich in sugar, and its acidic and flavor profiles do not tend to come through as much, similar to aged balsamic vinegar. This said, ice wine is phenomenal when drizzled on gelato or ice cream. Sorbets in ice wine-enriched fruit soups are killer. Ice wine gelées with cold preparations of foie gras are innovative as well.

Even in a salad with blue-veined cheese, apples or stone fruit, and candied nuts, ice wine fares quite well. Lastly, a note on ice wine, in regards to some of the “faux” ice wines out on the market. In California, “ice wine” producers use the method of cryoextraction (mechanichal freezing), in which the winegrowers simply pick late-harvest grapes and then freeze them using machinery. This farce of ice wine happens all too often, and is consistent with the other travesty of American wine -- generic wine labeling -- a loophole for some of the mediocre winemakers in America to label their sub par wines with prestigious names such as Champagne, Chablis, and Burgundy. It’s a shame, due to the fact that most of American wine rocks, and this sort of thing somewhat taints the image of American wine outside the country.

The making of faux ice wine is not as bad a labeling jug of Chardonnay with Chablis (one of the most elegant Chardonnay-producing regions in the world). True ice wine is something special. Stiil in some areas of Germany, when the first frost comes at night and freezes the overly-ripe grapes, the villagers all rush out of their homes to pick the grapes while they are frozen, and then to the wine presses to extract the syrupy grape must (juice) from them.

It’s very hard work, and not very financially rewarding since the process is labor intensive, the yields are low, and not every year does the first frost come at the right time of ripeness in the grapes. So, when you’re faced with an ice wine that hasn’t received the love and passion that is put into true ice wine, it defeats the purpose of enjoying an ice wine. Stick to Canada, Austria, and Germany, which has their respective governments monitoring the production of these wines, assuring they are the real deal and not some ripoff made from grapes from the freezer.

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