What is Ice Wine?

 

frozen grapes used for ice wine

To make ice wine, grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The prospect of dealing with a hard frost probably sends many winemakers into panic, thinking of all the grapes that could be ruined. For those making ice wine, however, this is a vital part of the winemaking process. Ice wine (also called Eiswein) is a deliciously sweet, rich dessert wine made from grapes that have been frozen on the vine. It’s a risky style to produce, so it tends to be expensive. But, if you love sweet wines, it’s a style you won’t want to miss.

Concentrating Sweetness on the Vine

Creation of true ice wine requires hearty grapes that can stay healthy through the season, until winter when they freeze solid on the vine. When this happens, the water in the grape solidifies leaving the sugars and other solids intact. This requires that the temperatures get down to at least -7°C or -8ºC (around 20ºF). Crushing them at this phase results in a very concentrated, sweet wine. Because they need to be frozen when crushed, the timing of harvesting can be a big challenge. Imagine having to quickly pick an entire crop in the wee hours of the morning in order to get the conditions just right.

Needing these specific weather conditions and resources limits the production areas of true ice wines. Canada and Germany are the biggest producers, though you can also find producers in many other European countries, as well as the US and Japan. In Canada, Germany, Austria, and the US, only wines made from naturally frozen grapes qualify for labeling as “ice wine.” Commercially freezing the grapes means it may only carry the label dessert wine, though some producers in these regions call it “iced” or “icebox” wine.  

frozen vineyard in canada

Canadian vineyard in winter, perfectly suited to making delicious ice wines. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Ideal Grapes for Ice Wine

Ice wine producers use both white and red wine grapes, usually varietals with higher acidity to give the final wine good balance and depth. The grapes should also grow well in cold temperatures and be fairly resistant to rot. The most common ice wine grapes are Riesling and Vidal, though winemakers experiment with many others, as well.  You’ll find ice wines created from Gewurtztraminer, Sylvaner, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and others.

When made from white wine grapes, these wines are typically pale or light gold, though sometimes they darken with age.  Red wine grapes usually produce ice wines that are pink, light burgundy, or even orange-ish in color.

What do Ice Wines Taste Like?

Sweet!  They have a heavenly, honey-rich sweetness with floral and fruity notes. Some have hints of cherry, strawberry, or pomegranate, while others offer notes of raisin or dried apricot. Most are lighter and more acidic than you would expect, however, and they have a relatively low ABV for dessert wines.  They often weigh in at just 7-12% alcohol.

How to Serve Ice Wine

The name might conjure images of winter, but these wines are excellent in any sort of weather. They’re delicious when consumed young, though some also age well thanks to their high sugar content and acidity.

Serve just slightly chilled so you can still appreciate the complexity. 45-55°F / 7-13°C is ideal. It’s traditional to use a dessert wine glass, though some are even better from a white wine glass.  This gives a little more room for experiencing aromas, plus they’re low enough ABV that volume isn’t as much of a concern as it is with fortified dessert wines.

Once the bottle is open, plan to finish it within 3-5 days if you’re storing it in your kitchen refrigerator. If you need it to last longer, consider investing in a wine preservation system.  

Perfect Pairings

A well-balanced ice wine can be a delicious dessert on its own. They can be sweet, flavorful, and the low alcohol content makes them easy to sip.

Their intense sweetness and fruitiness means they’re a wonderful way to add a little indulgence to desserts that are luscious, but subtly flavored.  Think ice creams, mousses, or cheesecakes. They’ll also pair well with a cheese courses, perhaps garnished with fresh fruits. For other great wine pairing ideas, check out our fantastic (and free!) food and wine pairing guide.  

pretty pink wine outdoors on wooden table