Ask any sommelier and they’ll tell you, making wine is a complex and strenuous process. But there’s no wine on earth as gruelling to produce as ice wine.
Icewine or Eiswein, as it’s known in its native Germany, is a type of sweet wine made with frozen grapes.
The end result is a wine so sweet it rivals coca cola in sugar levels. In fact, residual sugar at bottling must be at least 125 grams per litre to be counted as an official ice wine – without a balancing high level of acidity, that would be teeth achingly sweet.
How ice wine is made
There are a few different ways of creating an ordinary sweet wine. The most common involves harvesting the grapes later than than usual, meaning they are riper and therefore higher in sugar. Then the winemaker can stop the fermentation before all that sugar turns to alcohol.
However, ice wine has its own way of doing things. Hint, the clue is in the name.
Harvesters in Canada, Austria and Germany will hand-pick the grapes in sub-zero temperatures, often in the dark and sometimes teetering on steep hills. For best results, a bone-chilling frost of at least −8 °C is required
In these harsh conditions the grapes will be frozen solid. This means when the grapes are pressed, the frozen water is left behind on the press and the grape juice that comes out will be much less diluted and more concentrated. Hence more sugars per litre.
This pressing processes can take anywhere between half a day to two weeks. It all depends on how cold it is.
Why go through so much trouble?
You may be wondering why anyone would go to so much trouble, but ice wines are incredibly popular in Austria, Germany and Canada. In fact, average annual production in Ontario alone is 900,000 litres. It also an expensive wine, routinely retailing at more than $50 per half-litre. Meaning this hard-won liquid is pretty much worth its weight in gold.
It’s thought that this way of production was discovered quite by happy accident.
The origins of ice wine
During a particularly chilly winter in 1794, winemakers from Franken, Germany, decided to leave a few of their unpicked grapes on the vines to help feed roaming animals.
Well, the wine store must have run dry, because that plan quickly went out of the window as they eventually chose to pick and press the frozen grapes after all.
The resulting wine was a triumph, no one could get enough of this deliciously sweet and strong flavoured wine. And the technique was popularised by the mid 1800s.
A wine worth striving for
Ice wine may be a one of the most miserable wines to produce in the world. Not only must the grapes be handpicked in freezing temperatures, but those who make ice wine really are at the mercy of mother nature.
From protecting the grapes from pests, to dealing with a changing and unpredictable climate, there’s plenty that can wrong and spoil an entire harvest.
On top of this ice wine has a long and arduous fermentation process of 3–6 months, far longer than any other wine.
However, for those who love these unique and delicious wines, they’re worth every penny and every frost-bitten finger.
Would you shell out for a bottle of ice wine? Let us know in the comments.
Image: Dominic Rivard from Bangkok, Thailand