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What is True Ice Wine?

One would expect ice wine to have a long history in winemaking, but it does not. In fact, ice wine has only been around for about 200 years. The prevailing theory of its “birth” centers on a German winemaker who was surprised by an early frost. He chose to press the frozen grapes anyway, but separated them from the rest of his vintage so as to avoid ruining everything. To his surprise, the resulting wine was pure and sweet.

Ever since, ice wine has been produced to some degree in all wine producing countries of the Northern hemisphere, including Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland and others.

The difference between ice wine and other dessert wines is that ice wines show a much clearer fruit and varietal character. This is because other sweet wines are made from botrytis (”noble rot”) affected grapes, or with grapes that have been laid out and dried. Because ice wine grapes are healthy at harvest, a excellent amount of acidity remains, which gives the wine a raciness that other dessert wines generally have to a far lesser degree.

Right ice wine is that made from grapes that are kept on the vine until the temperature sinks below -19.4 Fahrenheit or -7 degree Celsius. In the U.S., New Zealand and some other regions, winemakers have started producing simulated ice wine by tossing the grapes into a commercial freezer. These simulated ice wines are considered to be of lesser quality and will typically sell at half the price of ice wine made in the traditional way.

Both methods do use the same basic thought: a grape is made up mostly of water, and since only the water will freeze at these low temperatures, the sweet grape nectar can be pressed from the grapes while the frozen water remains trapped in the skins.

It is essential to harvest on the first freezing night of the year, because grapes left on the vine to go through a freeze-thaw-refreeze cycle can pick up unwanted flavors. Winemakers are often nervous wrecks by harvest time, as they will have spent night after night waking up repeatedly to check the temperature.

“Keeping the harvest workers ready can be a tedious and embarrassing task” says Franz Heiss, head winemaker of the respected Heiss Winery in Austria. He will often have to wake up a dozen harvest workers for the fifth or sixth time, only to see another night pass without the desired temperatures quite being reached.

The best ice wines are clear and vibrant in their flavors and aromas. The aromatic Scheurebe grape has properties that make it a well loved choice for use in crafting fantastic ice wine. The stunning 2002 Eiswein by the well-known Austrian Gsellmann and Gsellmann winery exemplifies this perfectly.

Traminer is another aromatic varietal that results in fantastic ice wines. Master sweet wine vintner Franz Heiss makes a stunning ice wine from this grape, of which the 2001 and the 2002 vintages stand out. He has also made ice wine with the red grape Blaufränkisch, and the result is a magic rose-colored version with notes of exotic berries. As he clarifies it: “An ice wine made from red grapes is very uncommon. The freezing of the grapes influences the aromas greatly, and this is especially right when the grapes are red.”

In Austria, where the wine laws are the strictest in all of Europe, only ice wines made by Mother Nature are allowed to carry the proud name. So, if Austrian ice wines are then considered to be some of the most authentic and right ice wines, one could argue that an ice wine from Austria’s flagship grape, Grüner Veltliner, is the truest ice wine of all. Manfred Weiss of the Weiss Winery in the Burgenland region made a Grüner-only ice wine in 1999 and a cuvee of Grüner and Welschriesling in 2001. He prefers to use Grüner Veltliner for his ice wine because it is resistant to botrytis, so the end result has particularly clean and clear notes.

Finding these fantastic ice wines can be nearly as hard as making them. As the production method suggests, quantities are very limited, and the amount exported to the United States limits availability even more. Add to that the fact that every year around the holidays, most major food and wine publications run a tale about ice wine, and what there is to be found on your local retailers shelf is quickly snapped up. There are, but, a few online retailers who specialize in these wines: Winemonger.com is one example, with a wide selection of Austrian wines including a number of ice wines. Or a simple online search of the name of an ice wine maker, such as the ones mentioned in this article, will yield sources. Finding a fantastic, right ice wine is certainly worth the effort, though: there is nothing else quite like this spectacular dessert wine specialty.

Stephan Schindler is a wine importer based in Los Angeles. You can read more of his writings about wine, as well as find the wines he chooses to import, at winemonger.com winemonger.com

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