Wine Types | Icewine (Eiswein): In-Depth Guide

Massimo Vignaiolo
October 31, 2023
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Amidst a wintery landscape blanketed in frost, where the vineyards slumber beneath an icy embrace, a hidden treasure awaits. In this realm of frozen beauty, a remarkable elixir is born, crafted by nature's whims and human determination. Its name whispers through the frost-kissed air, invoking intrigue and anticipation. Icewine, a liquid jewel of the vineyard, captures nature's most exquisite flavors. With each sip, an ethereal symphony unfolds upon the tongue, revealing a symphony of sweetness and complexity, leaving those who dare to indulge forever captivated by its enigmatic allure.

Have you ever wondered how icewine is made and what makes this nectar of the Gods so rare and special?

In this in-depth guide, we will tell you everything you need to know about icewine: what it is, what are its main characteristics, how it is made and how to best enjoy it.

What is icewine?

Icewine, also known as Eiswein, is a type of late-harvest wine or vendange tardive ("VT") in French, made from grapes that have been left on the vine to freeze and harvested after the first frost.

In some places, it may take months for frost to arrive, and in that period, Mother Nature has to be on the winemakers' side while they do everything possible to protect the grapes from hungry birds. All of these conditions factor into driving the price up for the wine.

Regulations require temperatures to plummet to a minimum of -8 degrees Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or below. As the water in the grapes evaporates, sugars, flavours, and aromatic compounds concentrate to unparalleled levels producing a one of a kind, full-bodied and intensely aromatic wine.

How does ice wine differ from other dessert wine?

Ice wine differs from other sweet wines in several key ways:

Harvesting:

Harvesting

Grapes are left on the vine until they freeze naturally, usually in late autumn or early winter. The freezing temperature allows the water within the grapes to crystallize, leaving behind highly concentrated sugars, acids, and flavors. Harvest occurs before sunrise to prevent grape thaw as the ice crystals will destroy the cell walls. Thus, the harvest must be completed within a few hours of the first frost. In contrast, other dessert wines, including other late harvest wines, are typically made from grapes that are harvested when ripe but not frozen.

High Sugar Content:

High Sugar Content

Icewines are significantly sweeter, even compared to other sweet wines. Their high sugar content ranges between 160 and 220 g/L of residual sugar. The freezing process concentrates the sugars in the grapes, resulting in a much sweeter final product. High sugar means low alcohol content as fermentation converts sugar into alcohol. Icewine varies in alcohol content from as low 6% to as high 10% ABV.

Acidity:

Acidity

The freezing process preserves high levels of natural acidity in the grapes, providing a balance to the intense sweetness. In contrast, other dessert wine may undergo processes like fortification or drying, which can reduce acidity.

Aromatics and Flavour Profile:

Aromatics and Flavour Profile

Ice wine is known for its intense aromatics and flavor profile. The concentration of sugars, acids, and other compounds during freezing results in complex flavors of tropical fruit, honey, apricots, and citrus, among others. The aroma and flavor characteristics of ice wine are often described as rich, luscious, and intensely sweet.

Production Challenges:

Production Challenges:

Producing ice wine presents unique challenges. Grapes must be harvested and pressed while still frozen. The frozen grapes yield less juice due to the water content being frozen, requiring a larger quantity of grapes.

The exact amount of water lost during the production of these sweet wines can vary depending on several factors, including the grape variety, growing conditions, and winemaking techniques.

These factors, combined with the unpredictable weather conditions necessary for the grapes to freeze, make ice wine production more labor-intensive and limited in quantity compared to other dessert wines.

Overall, ice wine stands out for its distinct production method, higher sugar concentration, natural bright acidity, intense aromatics, and unique flavor profile, making it a sought-after and prized dessert wine.

Where is ice wine produced?

Where is ice wine produced?

Icewine is produced around the world: from Germany to the United States or even in Japan (in the Hokkaido region). But undoubtedly, Canada is the world's largest producer of ice wine. In 2021 alone, the country generated 14.38 million dollars through the export of ice wine!

What are the best-known regions for ice wine production in North America?

Canada has some of the most northern vineyards in the world. The land formations in Canada, typically run north to south, with little to no barrier to arctic air penetrating the vineyards and blanketing vineyards in freezing temperatures and providing the natural components necessary for the production of high quality ice wines.

Canada:

Some of the best-known regions for ice wine production in Canada are:

  1. Niagara Peninsula, Ontario: Located in southern Ontario, this is the most prominent and recognized region for ice wine production in Canada. The region benefits from a favorable climate and has a long history of producing exceptional ice wines. The sub-regions of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Twenty Valley are particularly renowned for their ice wines.
  2. Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: The region has gained recognition for its ice wines in recent years. The region's unique climate, with its warm summers and cold winters, allows for the production of high-quality ice wines. Wineries in the Okanagan Valley, especially around the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos, are producing excellent ice wines.
  3. Similkameen Valley, British Columbia: Located adjacent to the Okanagan Valley, the Similkameen Valley is another notable region for ice wine production in British Columbia. The valley's cool climate and favourable grape-growing conditions contribute to the production of exceptional ice wines.
  4. Prince Edward County, Ontario: Situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, it has emerged as a prominent wine region in Canada, including ice wine production. The region's proximity to the lake moderates temperatures, creating suitable conditions for the cultivation of ice wine production.
  5. Other Regions: While the Niagara Peninsula and the Okanagan Valley are the primary regions for ice wine production in Canada, there are other emerging regions across the country that are also producing notable ice wines. These include regions such as the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island in British Columbia, as well as parts of Nova Scotia.

United States:

South of the Canadian border, the Finger Lakes region in New York State is known for its production of ice wine. The Finger Lakes is a cool-climate wine region with several lakes, running north to south, a short distance away from Lake Ontario, that help moderate temperatures and create favorable conditions for ice wine production.

What is the impact of climate and climate change on ice wines?

It's worth noting that climatic conditions, grape varieties, and winemaking techniques can vary across regions, resulting in diverse styles of ice wines.

Due to the increasing influence on climate change, it is not possible to produce ice wine every year. As such, as a wine enthusiast rejoice when you can get your hands on a vintage of ice wine. Don't buy just a bottle, buy a case to the cellar, and open a bottle for that special occasion.

What are the other types of sweet wines?

Dessert wine varies by production techniques, grape varieties, and flavor profiles, offering a diverse range of options for wine enthusiasts with a preference for sweet and luscious wines:

  1. Late Harvest: Late harvest wines are made from grapes that are left on the vine longer than usual, allowing them to ripen further and accumulate higher sugar levels. The grapes may become partially raisined, concentrating the sugars and flavours. These wines can range from off-dry to very sweet, depending on the specific winemaking techniques employed.
  2. Sauternes: Sauternes is a renowned French dessert wine produced in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux. It is made from grapes affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea), which causes the grapes to shrivel and concentrate sugars while retaining acidity. Sauternes wines are lusciously sweet with flavors of honey, apricot, and botrytis-influenced characteristics.
  3. Tokaji: Tokaji (or Tokay) is a Hungarian sweet wine with a long history dating back several centuries. It is produced from grapes affected by noble rot, similar to Sauternes. Tokaji wines are classified based on their sweetness level, ranging from three to six "puttonyos." These wines exhibit complex flavors of dried fruits, honey, and caramel.
  4. Port: Port is a fortified sweet wine that originates from the Douro Valley in Portugal. It is made by fortifying the wine with a neutral grape spirit during fermentation, which stops the fermentation process and leaves residual sugars. Ports can vary in sweetness levels, from dry to very sweet, and are known for their rich, full-bodied flavors of dark fruits, spices, and chocolate.
  5. Muscat: Muscat is a grape variety known for its aromatic and naturally sweet characteristics. Muscat wines can range from off-dry to sweet, with flavors of orange blossom, peach, and tropical fruits. They are produced in various regions around the world, including France, Italy, Australia, and California.
  6. Vin Santo: Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine made from dried grapes. The grapes are left to dry, either on straw mats or hung in well-ventilated areas, which causes them to shrivel and concentrate sugars. Vin Santo is rich with nutty, caramel flavors.

Types of grapes used to make ice wine

In most countries, the temperature must be -8°C or lower. For this reason, to produce ice wine it is necessary to use grapes resistant to very low temperatures. The most commonly used varieties are:

  • Vidal Blanc: Commonly used to produce Canadian ice wine, characterized by caramel, sweet apricot flavors or even butterscotch notes.
  • Cabernet Franc: This is the most popular red ice wine variety. Wine made with this variety tends to have a rather pinkish tone, while in its aroma and flavor profile notes reminiscent of red fruits such as cherries or cranberries stand out.
  • Gewurztraminer: This white variety is very popular in countries such as Germany. Wine made with this variety has a tropical fruit profile, with notes of mango, lychee or pineapple.
  • Riesling: This variety is undoubtedly the most popular in Germany because it is considered the noblest variety for producing ice wine. Usually, this type of ice wine tends to have a fruity profile and high acidity, with notes that may remind of pineapple or even apricot.

How is ice wine made?

The process consists of the 4 steps detailed below:

How is ice wine made?

Freezing of healthy grapes

Freezing of healthy grapes

Although it can also be done artificially, through the cryoextraction process, for true icewine it is necessary to wait for very cold temperatures for the grapes to freeze in the vines. The frozen grapes concentrate a greater amount of sugar, thus allowing the production of sweeter wines!

Pressing of frozen grapes

Pressing of frozen grapes

After the harvest, the grapes are pressed. At this stage, the juice is obtained, which will later be fermented and turned into wine. There is usually only 10% to 20% juice left for vinification, much less compared to non-frozen grapes.

Fermentation

Fermentation

Fermentation can take several months, due to the large amount of sugar in the juice. Once some of the sugar has been converted into alcohol, fermentation can be stopped.

How long should the fermentation process take?

Well, that will depend on the flavor profile the winemaker wants to achieve: to produce very sweet wines with low alcohol levels, then a fermentation of up to 3 months will be enough. However, if the winemaker wants to produce wines with an alcohol level of 13%, then he should wait at least 5 or 6 months.

Filtering and bottling

Filtering and bottling

Filtering is a very important step since the juice of frozen grapes usually has a higher amount of sediment than that of non-frozen grapes. Once filtered, the wine is typically bottled in 375 ml bottles. This is due to the small volume of wine produced and the higher price.

How to drink Icewine?

Now, you are probably wondering how to drink a bottle of ice wine. Here, we will explain how to serve it and with which foods it pairs best.

Serving ice wine

Due to the particular characteristics of Icewine, it is advisable to follow the following steps to serving ice wines and enjoy their concentrated flavors to the fullest.

Serving ice wine
  1. Temperature is important: Serve ice wine at a temperature between 8 and 11°C (46 and 46°F) to be able to fully appreciate the wine's characteristics. 
  2. Use the right glass: Preferably use a dessert or flute glass to concentrate the aroma on a small surface and allow the wine to preserve its notes for a longer time. Ideally, the glass should have been previously chilled to 10°C.
  3. Serve the right amount: Serve about two ounces (60 ml) in each glass, so that everyone can have the best ice wine experience without it being cloying. Ice wine, like most dessert wines, comes in splits, 375ml bottles, with a 2 oz pours, you will have enough to serve 6 guests. If you have an exceptional wine in your hands, we would recommend that you skip the dessert altogether and let the ice wine take center stage and close the night.

How to pair ice wine?

To answer this, we must consider the unique qualities of ice wine: high sugar content, imparting sweetness, yet perfectly balanced by its high acidity. So, taking this into account, it is much easier to understand what kind of food ice wine goes best with. Below, we will give you some ideas for pairing some styles of icewine:

  • For Vidal Blanc based ice wines, a good idea is to pair it with fruity desserts that are not overly sweet, such as banana pudding or peach crumble. This way, the flavour of the desert will not overshadow the caramel and butterscotch notes of the ice wine.
  • In the case of Riesling ice wines, you can pair it with creamier foods, such as foie gras or crème brulée. This will allow the citrus notes of the Riesling to stand out more, without overshadowing the food.
  • Finally, in the case of Cabernet Franc ice wine, you can pair it with fruit pies such as cherries or strawberries. These types of desserts will go very well with the red fruit-oriented profile of Cabernet Franc. Another good idea to bring out the subtly spicy notes of some Cabernet Franc ice wine is to pair them with almond or even chocolate desserts.

Final Thougths