German Eiswein, literally, ice wine, is a rare elixir made from over ripe grapes left to freeze on the vine. The fruit must remain frozen throughout harvesting and pressing, which often requires picking at night. You have to be dedicated to go through such a rigorous process. Temperatures must be guaranteed to stay at or below the necessary 18 degrees. Hand harvesters need gloves so the warmth of their hands doesn’t thaw the grapes. Every grape is a hard little ice ball and it’s a race against time from start to finish, all to make one of the best dessert wines in the world.
It’s called liquid gold for a reason. A normal grapevine will yield about a bottle of wine, but with Eiswein you get just a cup, one-fifth of the regular result. A combination of over ripe grapes, then exposure to freezing and thawing, produces an acute essence of flavors, sugar and acid concentration ideal for Eiswein. Distinct from other German dessert wines, such as Trockenbeerenauslese, which are made from late-harvest grapes affected by noble rot, or botrytis, Eiswein is made only from pristine frozen fruit, resulting in a wine that’s fresher and more delicate.
It is always a gamble to leave fruit on the vine for so long; despite protective nets and devices, sometimes the whole vintage is lost to birds, deer or the weather. When the frozen harvest begins, workers deliver the grapes to be immediately processed under extreme hydraulic pressure, about three times the pressure of the air in a car tire. A tiny amount of concentrated, very sweet juice is extracted, leaving the natural water of the grape, in the form of ice crystals, on the grape skins to be discarded as pulp. This time consuming process proceeds with an extremely slow, natural fermentation, which is between three to six months but can be up to nine months.
Grapes commonly used for Eiswein are: Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner or Seyval Blanc. German Eiswein is the benchmark. The wine is prized for its finesse, a vibrant show stopper of intense fruit and delicate, refreshing acidity, with about half the alcohol of other dessert wines. Serve it chilled but not cold, as an outstanding apéritif or with an array of foods from oysters, scallops or lobster, rich foie gras, blue cheese or with dessert. Traditional Eiswein is not cheap. An alternative is Icewine from the US and Canada, which may have reduced costs by using commercial freezers, resulting in a richer style which is not as delicate but still very good. Ice Cider made from, you guessed it, frozen apples, is made in much the same way and is excellent. Why not celebrate the deep freeze we’re all in with an appropriate wine made from some hardy vintners frozen harvest? Eiswein, the perfect drink for cold nights by a warm fire and as Northerners, we can appreciate, more than most, what it takes to make this wonderful wine!
Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck