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What Is Ice Wine?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Ice wine, also known as ‘Eiswein’ in German, is a lusciously sweet dessert wine crafted from frozen grapes harvested in the depths of winter. Not every region can produce ice wine, and it remains a delectable treat for special occasions.

How Is Ice Wine Made?

ice wine being poured into a press

It starts with the perfect climate. Mother Nature must play her part by providing freezing weather, which seems an odd start for grapes destined for great wine.

Almost all grapes intended for dry table wine need to be harvested ahead of inclement fall weather. Not so with late harvest ice wine. Growers leave the grapes hanging on the vines out in the vineyard well into winter. Ice wine grapes go through a freeze-thaw cycle to help concentrate the berries’ sugar. This is a fraught time for the grower as foraging two- and four-legged critters feast in the vineyards ahead of the coming frozen months. It’s not uncommon for ice wine growers to lose much of their crop this way.

The grower brings in the berries when they’re frozen solid. Let’s pause to appreciate that little fact.

A picking crew braves the subzero weather to harvest handfuls of icy fruit.

The grapes’ core, which is mainly water, remains icy while the outer layer that contains most of the flavor molecules gets pressed off, leaving the water behind and producing an intensely sweet grape juice to be made into wine.

Ice wine can be vinified out of white or red grapes. Riesling, a highly aromatic white grape, is the traditional choice grown in Germany and Austria. Many Canadian ice wines are also vinified from Vidal Blanc, a hybrid developed in the 1930s that’s cold-hardy and suitable for extreme growing conditions. Growers use Cabernet Franc for red ice wines.

Most ice wines are unoaked to preserve the intense fresh fruit and floral aromatics, though some producers make lightly oaked styles.

Ice wine is not a high-volume enterprise, even their bottles symbolize limited production. Wine typically comes in 750 ml bottles, but ice wine is sold in 375 ml bottles, half the standard bottle size.

frozen wine grapes on the vine

How Do You Serve Ice Wine?

Serve your ice wine chilled. Start with light pours in a standard wine glass. You’ll want to enjoy the bright, concentrated fruit with food pairings that will compliment the wine’s style, not overwhelm it. Enjoy the wine with dried nuts, fruit-based tarts, crème brûlée, or even as an aperitif. Alcohol levels vary, but tend to be on the lower end of moderate.

Looking to Try Ice Wine?

Famous growing regions include Ontario and the Okanagan, Canada. Alsace, France produces excellent ice wine, as do the Mosel and Rheingau regions in Germany.

Expect to pay a premium for the best ice wine. Producers are unable to make this distinctive style every year. Even when the stars align and Mother Nature complies with the right growing conditions, low yields mean limited production. This makes ice wine a wonderful indulgence.

If you do find ice wine, know that it can be cellared for your special occasion thanks to its lively acidity and residual sugar, both capable of carrying the fruit for years to come. Depending on the vintage, these wines can last for decades. So, tuck a bottle or two away as a treat or to gift, because despite its name, ice wine makes for a warm delight that’s always welcome.

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.