Warming Up To Ice Wines
The recent frigid weather in Switzerland created perfect conditions to produce ice wines…a situation which does not often occur. Swiss wine-makers produce some of the most remarkable ice wines when given the chance…but only with extraordinary dedication to their craft.
It’s hours before the December sun rises and the temperature outside is well below freezing. It’s the perfect time to get out of a nice warm bed to harvest grapes. This is the type of sacrifice winemakers have to make in order to produce top quality ice wines.
Harvesting proceeds quickly before any sign of warmth thaws the grapes. The frozen grapes arrive at the equally frozen winery. All the doors and windows have been left open to keep the temperatures extremely low. If the grapes melt now, all the effort spent harvesting the grapes, and the risks taken by the winemaker in getting this far, will be in vain.
Ice wines are made from naturally frozen, ripe grapes. Once temperatures reach minus 7°C, the water inside the shriveled grape berries freezes, leaving a concentrated mix of natural sugars, acids and aromas. The frozen grapes are then pressed – a process which can take hours for the syrupy juice to ooze towards the tank. Finally, the alcoholic fermentation begins after a gentle warming of the juice, and the wait begins. Normal wine fermentation occurs on a scale of days, but ice wine can take months to properly ferment because of the high level of sugar in the juice.
Ice wines reflect the characteristics of the grape variety from which they are made. Their clear and crisp fruitiness would be lost in immense sweetness if the intense sugars were not balanced with a robust acidity. Alcoholic content is low, between 6 and 10 percent, making them quite light. Top ice wines age very well and can be cellared for more than 15 years…but, drinking them young is also pleasurable.
Most European ice wines are produced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland using many different red and white grape varieties. Some of the more exciting ice wines are produced from German Riesling, Austrian Grüner Veltliner or Zweigelt and Swiss Pinot Noir grapes.
In addition to tasting really good alone, ice wines partner with festive foods quite nicely. They are perfect complements for fois gras and soft or blue cheeses. For dessert, try matching them with fruit strudels, German Christstollen bread or stewed dried fruits with vanilla ice cream.
Many people turn away from trying an ice wine because of the expense – expect to pay anywhere from CHF 40 to CHF 500 for a half bottle. But consider the effort and risks required to produce a small amount of ice wine.
Healthy crops are left hanging on vines for several months and could be washed away in an instant by heavy rains. Delaying the harvest could mean risking losing all the grapes to hungry wild animals looking for a sweet winter treat. Nature may not cooperate causing grapes to rot on the vines because of a lack of freezing temperatures.
In the end, it’s only the wine maker’s single-minded determination and commitment that carries them through the icy harvesting process to produce these extraordinary wines.
Although this year’s ice wines won’t appear until late next year or even the year after…2009 ice wines will certainly be worth the wait!
If you can’t wait that long, then consider…
Zürcher Staatskellerei Eiswein made from the Pinot Noir grape, which will more than likely be difficult to find. You can also look for other ice wines from Eastern Switzerland, which share the same characteristics: a brilliant red-copper color, with festive fruit and spicy cinnamon aromas. Of course, you could also search for Eiswein from the Neusiedlersee area of Austria. They are generally golden-colored wines, with hints of exotic fruits, orange zest and bitter almonds. Finally, if you are in the mood to splurge on something extra special, then consider a Riesling Eiswein from Bacharacher Kloster Fürstental in Germany – it is a powerfully sweet wine balanced with electrifying acids and a very long finish…something you won’t quickly forget.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2008 winter edition of Inside Switzerland magazine.