Ice, Ice Baby: What is Ice Wine and Why Do You Need It in Your Life?

ice wine grapes
Gefrorene Traube/Wines of Germany

When most agricultural products get hit with an early frost, the entire crop can be lost. But for many winemakers, a deep frost is viewed as an opportunity. Ice wine (or eiswein, as the Germans and Austrians who created the category call it) is a delicate dessert wine that is worth the time (and money — the stuff ain’t cheap).

As a rule, wine grapes aren’t ready to harvest until the fall —  sometime between September and November for the Northern Hemisphere, depending on the variety and what sort of balance between acids and sugars the winemaker seeks (think green bananas versus very ripe bananas). Over the centuries, winemakers discovered that you can leave the grapes hanging around (ha!) even longer, and though they’ll look like little raisins, they create a concentrated, sugary, fermentable juice that’s tasty in its own right, creating a wide variety of sweeter “late harvest” wines.

ice wine harvest
Wines of Germany

However, delaying the harvest increases the risk of potentially damaging frosts frosts — however, just the right amount of freeze resulted in a delicious new wine. This was especially true in late-1700s Europe where a Little Ice Age made for long, bone-chilling winters. That’s when Germany started producing the first contemporary ice wines (the Romans might have been doing this almost two centuries earlier). They also set up rules: The grapes had to come in above a certain minimum of sugar content; you couldn’t pick grapes and pop them in a freezer or set them out some other day to freeze; the freezing, which crystallizes water and further concentrates the juice, had to happen naturally; and the grapes harvested below a specific temperature.

The downside to this approach, especially as Europe thawed in the 19th century (and today as climate change messes with everything) is you can’t always be guaranteed the right cold weather at the right time, meaning you’ll only get to make eiswein in certain years. In fact, according to Ernst Büscher of the German Wine Institute, due to climate change, “the chances to harvest eiswein are getting lower, which makes German eiswein even more precious. From the 2017 vintage, we do not expect much eiswein, if any.” Despite all this, Büscher says there’s no initiative to relax the rules.

inniskillin ice wine riseling
Courtesy photo

Enter Canada, wheres it’s, like, always cold. The late Karl Keiser, winemaker for Ontario-based Inniskillin, is credited with bringing Canadian ice wine to the international stage in the 1980s and ‘90s. Ironically, Canada’s rules are even stricter than Germany’s — higher minimum sugar levels in the grapes — and winemakers tend to harvest at an even lower minimum harvest temperature. Yet Canada (and the neighboring Niagara Falls and Finger Lakes region of New York state) manages to produce ice wines almost every year.

There’s even a celebration: the Niagara Icewine Festival, which takes place over three weekends each January. “What makes our festival pretty unique is that we’re able to produce ice wine in quantities that are envied around the world,” says Anthony Annunziata, executive director of Tourism Partnership of Niagara. “The only way to sample this many wines and ice wines at once is to visit each winery, which would take a lot longer. Though it would be very fun.”

niagara icewine festival
Niagara Icewine Festival

Some things to know about ice wine:

  • It’s sweet, but not crazy sweet: Since the sugars come from the grapes themselves (none added), the drink isn’t syrupy or cloying. It’s a clean, tight, light sweetness that pairs particularly with cheeses, fruits and nuts. According to Scott McGregor, winemaker at Canada’s Lakeview Wine Co., “great icewine has a delicate balance of sweetness and acidity, with concentrated flavors.”
  • You’re probably drinking last year’s harvest: Because so little of it is made each year, and most people don’t try and age it, odds are that you’re drinking the results of either last year or the year before. Some ice wines do age, but it’s not particularly recommended.
  • Keep it cool: According to McGregor, it’s best to store it on its side or at a slant that keeps the cork wet at a consistent temperature of around 50 degrees (like you might find in a cellar).
  • Serve it cool: Ice wine is best served cool, but not cold (about 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit), to reap the most from the flavors. Small flutes or wine glasses are perfect; since the bottles are usually small and pricey, it also avoids anyone bogarting the whole bottle.
  • Avoid other sweets: As with any dessert wine, it’s best not to pair it with a dessert that’s sweeter than the wine. The wine will end up tasting bitter or vinegary in comparison. Instead,pair with very dark chocolate, fruit tarts, or blue and hard cheeses with just a touch of dark honey. Pro tip: Ice wine also pairs nicely with spicy, complex cuisines like Indian or Thai.

Scotch whisky fans, take note: You can now have your cake and eat it too. Glenfiddich has launched Winter Storm, a 21-year single malt finished in ice wine casks (the first time ever done for a whisky, according to the company) as part of its Experimental Series. Employing French Oak casks from Peller Estate, another Canadian ice wine pioneer, the whisky scores notes of candied fruit and lychee from the barrels. The sleek white bottle looks like something that might show up at the home bar of Mr. Freeze or Emma Frost. You may have to hunt for this one. The $250 whisky was made in a limited edition using barrels from the 2017 ice wine harvest.