Winter has us firmly in its grip (still) so now would seem like an appropriate time to discuss what is for many the ultimate sweet white wine – Eiswein, or Icewine as it is known in non-German speaking wine producing countries.
This rare, expensive and intensely sweet white wine is made from grapes harvested in the depths of winter before the dawn breaks. Spare a thought for the brave and hardy grape pickers who have spent December and January in sub-zero night-time temperatures grubbing around in the frozen vines trying to find the perfect grapes so that you and I can enjoy an indulgent white wine treat.
The most productive Eiswein or Icewine countries are Germany and Canada. In fact in recent years Canada produces more Icewine than Germany unless the German winter is exceptionally cold. Other European countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary produce Eiswein in very small quantities.
It is possible that the first Icewines were produced during Roman times but the first properly documented Eiswein harvest was in February 1830. The vine growers had left some grapes on the vines as animal feed during a particularly harsh winter but had the idea of pressing the grapes when they noticed the grapes had a very sweet must or juice. Producing sweet white wine from late harvested grapes was already established in Germany so it did not take a great leap of faith to experiment with pressing the frozen grapes.
Despite the discovery of Eiswein in 1830 there were only a handful of documented harvests in Germany over the next 130 years. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Eiswein began to be produced in Germany with any regularity, thanks to a series of technological inventions such as the pneumatic bladder press which made the production more practical and viable. Despite the many technological advances the frozen grapes are still hand-picked only when the conditions are perfect which means a large labour force on standby to be mustered at short notice to pick the entire grape harvest in a matter of a few hours. No wonder Eiswein/Icewine is rare and expensive.
The predominant white wine grape used for Icewine, or Eiswein, is Riesling. Rather than harvesting the grapes at the usual time the wine producers leave them on the vine into the winter. The grapes are harvested when they are frozen and immediately taken for pressing before they defrost. The water in the grapes has frozen and formed ice so when the grapes are pressed only the very concentrated sweet juices are slowly released. The result is an intensely sweet white wine with a wonderful pure, clean taste.
Despite being produced from late harvested grapes Icewine tastes very different from other botrytized white wines. Whilst the noble rot is encouraged by the producers on grapes intended for botrytized white wine the infection is usually absent on Icewine grapes.
Despite Germany leading the field in Eiswein production Canada is now the world’s most important Icewine producer. Whilst Icewine is produced across Canada’s wine growing regions Ontario is the centre of Icewine production, particularly the Niagara Peninsula. Canada benefits from consistent freezing during winter making it ideal for Icewine production.
Wine production, including Icewine, is self-regulated in Canada by the Vintners Quality Alliance. The rules governing Icewine production are more stringent than those in Germany demanding a higher sugar level in the white wine grapes before they can be used for Icewine. The best known and most respected producers include Inniskillin Wines and Pillitteri Estates Winery.
German wine producers cannot rely on the freezing winter temperatures enjoyed in Canada so German Eiswein production is a much more hit and miss affair. The grapes can be gathered only when the night time temperature goes below -6C so Eiswein is only produced in any volume following a harsh German winter.
Despite the climactic challenges, the Germans excel at producing wonderful sweet white wines and their Eiswein is no exception. The required sugar levels for Eiswein are at least equivalent to a Beerenauslese if not as high as a Trockenbeerenauslese. Bearing in mind these botrytized white wine styles are rare and legendary it gives an indication of the quality level of German Eiswein.
However, despite its similarity in sugar levels to the great German botrytized wines Eiswein tastes quite different. Eiswein has a higher acidity balance giving it a tangy, racy finesse unmatched by the other sweet white wines. No wonder it can command such high prices.
Eiswein or Icewine is usually sold in half bottles i.e. 37.5cl volume. You can expect to pay a minimum of £20 for a half bottle of German Eiswein and more for Canadian Icewine. Bottles which have been aged and are from top quality producers can cost considerably more.
Image by Rivard.