“I” is for Icewine

Ok I admit, as I write this in glorious spring sunshine, the thought of frozen vines and Christmas, which is what usually comes to mind when I think of Icewine, does seem (thankfully) a long way away.

I bet it’s fair to assume that many of you haven’t ever tried Icewine?  More’s the pity, for this is arguably my favourite dessert wine and I don’t just wait for Christmas, any special occasion will do, and why only special occasions?  Because it’s so bloody expensive!  But as this post will reveal, there are legitimate reasons for this.

What is Icewine?

Known as either Icewine or Eiswein – if you think the latter sounds Germanic, then you’d be correct, this style of wine, originated in Germany in the 1700’s. While it is still made in Germany, today, arguably the finest iterations come from Canada who have made this style of wine something of a speciality, with wines produced in Ontario and British Columbia. Icewine needs specific climatic conditions (for that read damn cold!), and as such can only be produced in countries that regularly experience very cold conditions, because, as the name suggests, the grapes need to freeze.

Icewine can be made from white or red varieties and are single varietal ie one grape variety not a blend. Riesling (white) and Cabernet Franc (red) are the most popular grapes used although many other Vitis Vinifera varieties are also well suited to this style of wine.  In Canada it is common to see the grape Vidal on labels (note this is a ‘hybrid’ variety).

How is it made?

Rather than being harvested in late summer/early autumn, grapes are left on the vine into the winter months and as temperatures fall well below zero, they freeze.  Once temperatures reach -8 OC and once sugars in the grapes have achieved the requisite levels, the grapes are picked (note – having done a harvest in summer which can be backbreaking, the thought of picking grapes in polar conditions, usually in the dead of night, really doesn’t appeal!)

The process of freezing concentrates the sugars, acidity and extract in the grapes, which means, once the grapes are delicately pressed, the 80% of the grape juice which is water has turned to ice and is removed, leaving a concentrated sweet must that then undergoes a very slow fermentation (which can take months because the juice is so sweet).

Note: Canada and Germany have very specific (ie strict) requirements for the production of Icewine/Eiswein, other countries do not, and its not uncommon for winemakers to pick grapes and chuck them in the freezer to achieve similar results with far cheaper production costs.

Why is it so expensive?

As you can imagine, the labour involved in handpicking the fruit, and the minute quantities of juice extracted from the frozen grapes, explain why this wine style is so expensive, plus, if climatic conditions aren’t conducive, then producers are forced to forgo a harvest (which happened this year in Germany).

What does Icewine taste like?

“Nectar from the gods” to quote my dear old dad again!  Indeed there have been a number of Christmas table occasions when we’ve been fighting over the remnants of the bottle! Icewine is quite simply beautiful.  Because the grapes aren’t affected by Botrytis (noble rot – a term regular readers will now be familiar with), the wines retain more primary fruit character – think tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, lychee as well as lemon and lime citrus, alongside marmalade and honeyed notes. But a lot will depend on which grape is used ie more red berry characteristics for wines made from Cabernet Franc.  Hugely concentrated, these wines are surprisingly refreshing, even though they are extremely sweet, the high levels of acidity balance this sweetness beautifully.  They are also lower in alcohol (usually around 8-10%) which is a bonus for those of you looking to drink lower alcohol wines.

Some favourites from my collection!

Producers to look for:

Inniskillin and Peller from Canada are two brilliant exponents of this style of wine, I’ve got a few bottles of these in my selection.

Indeed, Inniskillin have also produced an incredible sparkling version although the price point may put many off: It’s very expensive c.£38 for a half bottle! Look out for my Christmas six pack offer, if I can get a good deal on this, I will let you know.

Top tip: If you fancy trying one but don’t want an expensive outlay, then usually LIDL have a bargain-priced version – I bought Pillitteri Estates last year for around £11.  Its not as good as the producers I name above, lacking a bit of complexity and concentration but for that price and as an introduction to the style, it’s definitely worth a punt.

Trust me when I say this, if you want a sweet wine, that has purity of fruit, concentration of flavour and beautifully balanced acidity which means the wine, despite the sweetness retains freshness – Icewine really is the daddy. Give it a go… but you might want to save up first!

Next up “J” is for Jura.

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