Home | Recent Tastings | Wine Touring | Cellars | What's New

Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

    Eisweins and Ice Wines: Baby, It's Cold Out There - February 7, 2007

    We all know that, behind the scenes, there's a lot of hard, unglamorous work required in the producing of wines. For any who have ever picked grapes here in Northern New Mexico, you well know this is easily some of the hardest, stickiest labor around. If you're a producer of ice wine or, in Germany, Eiswein; then most grape pickers have it pretty easy.

    photo credit: Black Star Farms, MI

    Imagine having to go out and pick grapes, in the dead of Winter, the temperature below 20 F, on a steep 45 slope, a little miner's lamp attached to your head, at 5:00 in the morning, freezing your kiester off!! THAT is what you call hard labor!! Yet that is what winemakers of Ice Wine, in Germany, Canada, and other Northern climes where grapes are grown, do every Winter. This article discusses this rare genre of dessert wine.

    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 1800's and into the 1900's, Eiswein were made infrequently as the cold weather dictated. It was done 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 and 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 1960's that German winemakers got serious about Eiswein and set about to make them intentionally, as a matter of course. A block of the vineyard is set aside for Eiswein production. And then the wait begins, after the regular harvest is completed, for a hard freeze to provide the necessary conditions. 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 predatations. Sometines 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 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 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 afore 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; oft it's only to make it "easier". In the mid-'80's, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, a stalwart afficianado 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 accomodate his desires. Bingo!! Why not use a freezer...or even the local morgue.. he reasoned. After tinkering at it several years, Randall took a load of Muscat Canelli grapes to a nearby cold storage facility in 1986 , froze them solid, brought them back to the winery and crushed them. He labeled it Vin de Glace ("wine of ice cream"). That label sneaked by the Feds somehow. After two years, they caught it and issued Randall a cease and desist. So, in 1988, he changed the label to Vin de Glaciere ("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 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 some places (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 increases in complexity and character one would expect. Oftentimes, it simply developes a slightly nutty, oxidized character. What's good 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 essence of apple. What about New Mexico ice wine? To my knowledge, none have been produced. A natural NM ice wine would probably be prohibitively expensive. But a freezer ice wine absolutely makes 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, the results would be interesting.

<< back to TomHill archive

Home | Top of page | Recent Tastings

Copyright © 1996 - 2006, Tom Hill - All rights reserved
No original material may be reproduced without written consent
Mail & Comments
- Grape-Nutz