Frozen Assets

Frozen Assets

Indulging in Ice Wine

Sumptuously sweet and intensely flavored, ice wine ranks among the world’s finest – and often most expensive – dessert wines. More than extraordinary taste, however, makes this wine so appealing: Knowing the effort that goes into crafting this appropriately named elixir invites splurge-worthy sipping during the holidays. (If none of the traditional celebrations grab you, perhaps get in touch with your inner pagan by hosting a Winter Solstice Eve dinner?)

The story begins with ice wine grapes, most popularly vidal or riesling, which remain on the vine until the mercury drops to bone-chilling levels. Frozen like clusters of marbles, the grapes are traditionally hand-harvested in bitter cold conditions – sustained at 17.6°F or lower – several hours before the sun rises. The event seems almost out of kilter with nature as the frozen silence of a country night is shattered by a flurry of activity. Flickering beams from headlamps and lanterns create eerie shadows as workers, bundled in countless layers of clothing, snip clusters of solid grapes from vines as quickly as frigid fingers allow. In a race against time and temperature, the crew works its way down the rows before the ruddy, leathery-looking grapes – which have developed honeyed, apricot-like flavors during the extended hanging time – are delivered to an unheated pressing room. Or, at least those grapes that haven’t been destroyed by hail or windstorms or succumbed to ruinous rot (not to be confused with the desirable botrytis cenerea, or “noble rot,” which heightens the flavor of many late harvest wines). Hand-tied mesh netting around the vines often helps deter birds tempted by the candy-sweet fruit. 

The grapes are then crushed at these extremely low temperatures to ensure that the water in them remains in frozen crystal form, while the richer components of the juice can run freely to fermentation. Crushing rock-hard fruit takes considerable time, and the chunks of ice left behind may damage costly machinery. However, when the amber liquid finally begins to trickle from the press, the fragrance is explosive. 

While the elimination of water from the extract ensures a complex, concentrated taste – after all, nothing remains but sugars and acids – it also reduces the amount of wine that can be produced. Low yield, high risk, and massive amounts of labor all factor into the (sometimes) breathtaking price of ice wine, which can soar well over $100 for a slender little 375-ml bottle imported from a renowned German estate. And demand always exceeds supply.

Originating in Germany more than two centuries ago, imported Eiswein may become increasing rare in the future due to climate change: Warmer temperatures in 2017 and 2018 saw a reduction in the number of German wine regions that could produce this limited specialty, and 2019 brought the first complete Eiswein harvest failure nationwide. That fact alone seems reason enough to become a climate change activist. 

A few regions in the U.S. craft ice wine through traditional methods, though climactic changes also impact production in this country. Chilly Canada, though, has emerged as the world’s leading supplier, even as growing audiences in China, Japan, and Scandinavia clamor for more of this luscious liquid. 

As a workaround to an uncooperative Mother Nature, an artificial freezing process called cryoextraction offers greater control for winemakers who can harvest, freeze, and press the grapes at their peak of flavor. A happy byproduct of this process is more affordable pricing for consumers. Wagner Vineyards, located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, has employed this method since the 1980s and find that it provides greater consistency for their highly rated “iced” dessert wines. (Cryo wines are also referred to as “ice box” wines.) Wagner Riesling Ice and Wagner Vidal Ice, the only domestic “iced” wines offered through Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores and website, are both priced at $24.99. In comparison, Dr. Loosen Estate Riesling Eiswein fetches a cool $85.99 for the same 375-ml size bottle. [Info on supplies and prices is accurate at press time.]

Regardless of your personal preferences – whether for specific grapes, country of origin, or method of freezing – opening a bottle of ice wine provides an incomparable, voluptuous conclusion to dinner. 

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