We all know that behind the scenes, there's a lot of hard, unglamorous work required in the production of wines. For any who have ever picked grapes here in Northern New Mexico, you know that this is some of the hardest, stickiest labor around. Now imagine being a producer of ice wine-picking grapes in the dead of winter at 5:00 in the morning, the temperature below 20° F, balancing on a steep 45 degree slope, a little miner's lamp attached to your head-freezing your kiester off!! Now, that is what you call hard labor!
Yet that is what the producers of ice wine (Eiswein in German) do every winter. From Germany to Canada and other northern climes where the grapes for this rare dessert wine are grown, this frozen scene repeats itself, harvest after harvest.
Pure and simple, ice wine is made from frozen grapes. The grapes are harvested in the wee hours of the morning and immediately pressed. The frozen water remains behind in the grapes. The extracted juice, about 15%-20% of the normal yield, is very high in both sugar and acid. This intense syrup is then fermented normally to yield a very sweet, briskly acidic, dessert wine.
Germany was the first country to make ice wine; records indicate one being made in Franconia in 1794. Through the 1800s and into the 1900s, Eisweins were made infrequently, done only when there was a severe freeze and grapes were still hanging on the vines; not intentionally, but as a means of salvaging an otherwise lost crop. These early Eisweins were very rare, not given much serious thought by wine connoisseurs of the day and used primarily for personal consumption, with few bottles making it to market.
It was not until the 1960s that German winemakers got serious about Eiswein and set about to make them intentionally. A block of the vineyard is set aside for Eiswein production. After the regular harvest is completed the wait begins for the hard freeze that will provide the optimal conditions for harvest.
After the first light freeze, the vines lose their leaves, leaving the grapes naked, exposed to the vagaries of nature. Often the vines are covered by bird netting to prevent those predations. Sometimes they are covered with plastic sheeting to prevent rot damage from the rains and snows. Once the temperature hits 19° F or below, it is legally permitted to harvest the grapes and make the Eiswein. Sometimes, this is not until January of the following year.
Obviously, it takes either a very dedicated winemaker or a nut case to want to make this kind of wine. And he must have a bunch of masochistic friends at his beck and call, awaiting that early morning summons to come pick. Clearly, because of the effort involved, these wines will not be cheap.
Over the years, the Germans have become the acknowledged master of these natural ice wines. But their cold growing climate is hardly unique. The Canadians have now embraced this genre with a passion, primarily in Ontario and British Columbia. The first Canadian ice wine was made in 1973. Walter Hainle, a former textile salesman from Hamburg, was awaiting delivery of the remaining Riesling crop from a grower in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. A surprise frost hit the vineyard before the last of the grapes were harvested, and he saw his opportunity to make history, producing about 30 litres of the nectar.
As is often the case, technology steps in. Sometimes it is to make a "better" product; often it's only to make it "easier". In the mid 1980s, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, a stalwart aficionado of all things Riesling, got to thinking (always a dangerous proposition in his case) about making an ice wine. Clearly, California is seldom going to have the hard freeze necessary to accommodate his desires. Bingo!! Why not use a freezer (or even the local morgue) he reasoned.
After tinkering with it several years, Randall took a load of Muscat Canelli grapes to a nearby cold storage facility, froze them solid, brought them back to the winery and crushed them. He labeled it Vin de Glacé, "wine of ice cream." Somehow that label sneaked by the Feds. After two years, however, they caught it and issued Randall a cease and desist. So, in 1988, he changed the label to Vin de Glacière, "wine of the ice box" and has been producing it ever since.
In point of fact, this technique was first tried by Dr. Hans Ambrosi in 1966 in South Africa with Chenin Blanc grapes. The wine was not very good and the method was discarded. Technically, the process is termed cyro-extraction and is sometimes used in France to produce Sauternes in rainy years. But it has been, based on Randall's success, widely adopted in countries where weather conditions do not permit "natural" ice wines, like California, New York, New Zealand, Australia, and Slovenia.
There is some disagreement over the quality of "freezer" ice wines vs. "natural" ice wines. In Canada and Germany the use of the term ice wine is forbidden unless the grapes are naturally frozen on the vine. Of the ice wines I've tasted over the years, I've not been able to detect a significant, consistent difference.
What does ice wine taste like? It typically ranges from slightly sweet to syrupy sweet. The process always produces a highly acid wine that nicely balances the elevated sugar level on the palate. Oftentimes, in the "natural" ice wines, there can be strange aromas and flavors from the grape's exposure to nature.
How do ice wines age? The high sugars and high acidities SHOULD make a wine that ages very well. In practice, their aging is highly variable. I seldom see the increase in complexity and character one would expect. Oftentimes, it simply develops a slightly nutty, oxidized character.
What's good and available locally? The Rudolf Muller Riesling "04 Eiswein from the Pfalz is one of the best German examples, and very reasonably priced ($14). The Alois Kracher Eiswein (freezer) from Austria is exceptional (and expensive at $47). One of the most interesting ice wines is the Pinnacle Ice Apple wine from Quebec. It has a bracing acidity and speaks of the essence of apple.
What about New Mexico ice wine? To my knowledge, none have been produced. A natural New Mexico ice wine would probably be prohibitively expensive but a freezer ice wine makes absolute sense. I'd LOVE to see Henry Street produce a Ponderosa Vineyards Riesling ice wine or Bruce Noel a Los Luceros Seyval Vin du Frigo. It could be done and the results would be interesting.
During this month of February, consider cracking open a bottle of Eiswein to toast your Valentine...
"Baby, it's cold outside, but the wine is sweet and so are you."
Look to a local wine shop for their selection of Eisweins. The wines in our photos are from Susan's Fine Wine and Spirits in Santa Fe at 505-984-1582.