Wines of the Month

December, 2000

Baby, It's Cold Outside...

...So what makes a few hardy (some might say crazy) souls leave their warm beds in the middle of the night to gather in the vineyards for hours of manual labor during the coldest weather of the season? Nothing less than the chance to help make one of the world's rarest and most cherished wines -- Icewine (or Eiswein in German).

Icewine is made with grapes that are frozen on the vine. The grapes are picked only when the temperature is well below freezing (in Germany, the law requires temperatures at least as cold as 18ºF, or -8ºC), so harvests often take place in November, December and even sometimes in January, long after all the other harvesting is complete. And since the coldest temperatures usually occur in the middle of the night, that's when the grapes are usually picked. After picking, the grapes are pressed while still frozen -- so the people working the press also get to "enjoy" the weather.

Why go through all this trouble? To make very concentrated, sweet wines. Since water freezes at a higher temperature than sweet juice, ice crystals remain in the press, while the very concentrated, sugary and flavorful juice is collected for fermentation. The process is somewhat similar in concept to techniques used to make other dessert wines, such as drying grapes or picking botrytis-affected grapes, both of which result in more concentrated juice.

Concentrated juice means concentrated flavor, along with lots of sugar. The grape acids are also concentrated in the unfrozen portion of the juice, so Icewines tend not to be cloying despite high sugar levels. And the residual sugar is typically quite high in Icewines. By law, the juice (aka "must") used to make German Eiswein must be at least Beerenauslese level or above, which means that it must have the potential to produce about 15-18% alcohol content if the wine is made completely dry; however, since most Eisweins have much lower alcohol levels (around 10% is not uncommon), the wine is usually quite sweet.

Icewines can be made from a variety of grapes. Most are made from white grapes, although I have seen one or two from red grapes. Many producers like to use hardy grapes, with thick skins, which are less likely to split open before harvest; the French hybrid grape Vidal is a popular choice for this reason. I've tasted some exceptional Icewines made from Vidal grapes, but I've also had some that tasted like poorly canned lychees in cloying sugar syrup; finding a good producer is obviously important. The best quality Icewines I've tasted have, for the most part, been made from Riesling, which is one of my favorite white grapes. Riesling can produce a stunning array of flavors and has high natural acidity which helps keep the wine fresh on the palate. Many other grapes are used, including Muscat (which was one of my two favorites of the Jost Vineyards Icewines featured in September, 2000) and Kerner (an example from Tinhorn Creek is reviewed below).

By now, you're probably thinking that Icewine sounds great. So you're probably thinking, "What's the catch. There's always a catch..." You're right. There is. As with so many great wines, the catch is the price. For a good Icewine, you can expect to pay $30 to $150 (or more) for a half-bottle, depending on the producer, year, grape and place of origin. Why so much? One reason is that Icewine is difficult and expensive to make. Grapes need to be left out on the vine for much longer than usual, increasing losses due to birds and other animals, rot and other factors. And since the grapes are pressed while frozen, you get more concentrated juice, but, obviously, in a much lower volume. One Canadian Icewine producer I met estimated that he got about one-tenth as much juice from the area he saved for Icewine as he would have pressed with a normal harvest.

A second reason is supply and demand. Demand is fairly high right now, both from traditional markets and from newer Asian markets, and there just isn't that much Icewine produced. Not only do the grapes give smaller quantities of juice, but the producer has to be willing to risk the harvest of those grapes for a long time, so most producers only make small quantities. Also, there is a limited geographic area where Icewines can be made. The climate has to be warm enough to allow the grapes to ripen, but it also has to freeze early enough and consistently enough that the winemakers are willing to take the risk. Germany, Austria and Canada (mostly Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and British Colombia's Okanagan Valley) are the big producers , though a few are made in the United States (in New York's Finger Lakes region and in the state of Washington). Finally, Icewines -- or at least regularly produced and marketed Icewines -- are a fairly new development in the world of wine; the first highly-regarded German vintage (other than accidental ice-wine production resulting from an early freeze) was in the early 1960's, which is practically considered 'current events' in the wine history field.

If you consider the work, risk and cost that goes into making Icewine, the price seems more reasonable. But feeling that the wine is worth the price doesn't really help if you've already blown the monthly wine budget and your wallet is empty. Don't worry, though. There is another option. A number of producers who aren't located in the right part of the world, or who just don't have the patience (or stomach) to wait for a natural freeze have taken to making "freezer wines." These wines are made by picking normal grapes and putting them in a freezer. After the grapes are frozen, they are pressed, just like Icewine, yielding concentrated juice. This process, known as cryoextraction, has recently found wider applications in concentrating grape sugars and flavors; in fact, it's even used by some Sauternes producers in years when insufficent botrytis develops.

Are "freezer wines" just like Icewine? No, not in my opinion. The extra time on the vine seems to help the Icewine grapes gain flavor, so Icewines are often more intense. Also, since "freezer wines" are often made in warmer climates, the grapes sometimes seem to lack the zippy acidity of the best Icewines. However, many "freezer wines" offer concentrated, sweet flavors, and are a true pleasure to drink. They also have the advantage of lower prices. None of the freezer wines I've seen go much above $20 for a half-bottle, and I've bought some for less than $15. The Bonny Doon Vin de Glacière series is a reliably good example of this type of wine, and I've previously recommended the Andrew Rich Gewürztraminer Les Vigneaux Willamette Valley '97 in this column (in February, 2000).

Whether you want to splurge on a bottle of Icewine, or just enjoy a more modest "freezer wine," these sweet treats are perfect finishes to a rich holiday meal. They're also easy to enjoy while sitting next to a fire -- the rich, chilled wine providing an intense contrast to the warming flames. And while you're enjoying this special wine in your nice warm house, don't forget to raise a glass to the intrepid souls who braved the cold to pick the Icewine grapes -- they might even be picking while you drink!

King Estate Pinot Gris Vin Glacé Oregon '98 -- This is a "freezer wine," not a true Icewine. While it doesn't have the flavor intensity of a true Icewine, it is still a delicious dessert quaff, and, besides, it's much more affordable. Pinot Gris isn't the most popular grape for these types of wines, but if this bottle is any indication, perhaps some other producers should give it a try. Aromas of honey, pineapple and citrus with a hint of apricot. Plenty of acidity is apparent in the mouth, along with bold honeyed fruit flavors -- pinapple, apricot and a touch of golden delicious apple. The finish was a bit simple and short, but on the positive side, it wasn't cloying either. While this wine is quite sweet, it avoids being heavy, making it a refreshing finish to a meal. A good deal at regular prices, but this bottle was a steal at a sale price of$12.60 (375ml).

Selaks Riesling Icewine Marlborough '97 -- Although I don't have any production details, from the location, price and flavors, I have to conclude that this gem from New Zealand is another example of a "freezer wine". Generous aromas of apricots and pineapple, with touch of honey and mineral are echoed in the lush, sweet flavors. A slight undercurrent of mineral and cola perks things up. Doesn't have as much acidity as I expected. This isn't a subtle, elegant wine, but it is definitely an enjoyable one that is drinking well now.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Kerner Icewine Okanagan Valley '96 -- I couldn't end an Icewine article without a tasting note from a real Icewine, could I? Hailing from British Columbia, this is one of the best Canadian Icewines I've tasted. Made from Kerner, a German cross of Trollinger and Riesling, this wine shows enticing aromas of apricots, pineapple and honey. What the nose promises, the wine delivers -- with interest . It's impossible not to enjoy the big, sweet apricot, pineapple and honey flavors. A hint of coconut also helps to keep things interesting. Feels lush in the mouth, without being heavy. Finishes strong, with good acidity at the end, keeping the flavors fresh and appealing, without being cloying.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000-2001 by Marcel Lachenmann.