What exactly is ice wine and why is it so expensive?

I published this post in May of 2012, but since as of late a) a friend of mine found it while she was researching Eiswein, b) this was an early post so chances are many of you have not seen this, and c) it was -20 degrees Celsius (-5 degrees F) last night up here in Alaska, I thought it was a good time to republish this post. I hope winter is treating you all well!

There is a magic aura that surrounds German ice wine (“Eiswein” in German), especially the Rieslings. It is rare, it is expensive, and to me, it is more syrup than wine. German ice wine can only be harvested when it is -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees F). This often only happens in December or January, which means the winemakers have to leave the grapes on for way after the usual harvest. If it does not get that cold, then the grapes will be lost, same is true if birds feed on them, which is why most now put some sort of net or plastic around the vines that carry the grapes. Other countries have resorted to collecting unfrozen grapes and then freezing them to produce ice wine. It takes away from that whole magic, and the grapes are not as weathered as they are in German ice wine.

Grapes protected by plastic in Karl Erbes vinyards.
(Photo from Karl Erbes website at weingut-karlerbes.de)

The winemakers watch the weather and temperature forecasts nonstop to ensure that they are ready to go when the temperatures are right. They then venture out and harvest the grapes, bringing them back as soon as they can, because it is vital that the grapes remain frozen when they are crushed. The harvest itself usually produces stunning photos (as you can see), often it happens in the early morning hours. The grapes need to be of at least Beerenauslese level in sweetness. Check this post for what that is…

Frozen grapes
(Photo from Karl Erbes website at weingut-karlerbes.de)

Because the water remains mostly frozen in the grapes, the little juice that is coming out is highly concentrated. The levels of sugar and acidity are very high, which makes these wines so interesting. Once the grapes have been crushed, the fermentation process needs to get going, which is not the easiest thing to achieve at such low temperatures. A friend of mine once told me about the small heating fans he surrounds the juice with in order to get things started…

Carrying the grapes in the traditional bucket
(Photo from Karl Erbes website at weingut-karlerbes.de)

The outcome is intense, intense wines. They are usually bottled in half bottles, and command a premium price. In the steep hills of the Mosel river, harvesting is done by hand. If you see a cheap(er) ice wine (usually from Rheinhessen or Baden), that usually means that they were machine harvested, which cuts the labor price and therefore their bottle price. It takes away part of the myth, though…

Ice wines age incredibly well, and are good for decades, sometimes centuries. In their first years, they are almost overbearingly intense: the sweetness of the sugar, raging acidity on your tongue, it can be mindblowing. With age, they mellow out more, and that is when their true beauty shines. I can never drink more than a small glass in one go, but I think that is a good thing. Ice Wine is meant to be shared, and enjoyed at very special occasions, because they are very special indeed.

Update 12/12/2012: Check out the video of an ice wine harvest here!

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24 thoughts on “What exactly is ice wine and why is it so expensive?

  1. […] for Ice wine), I wrote a longer piece about it a while back so please feel free to check it out here. To recap: Eiswein is made from grapes that are frozen on the vine (that’s for purists, like […]

  2. What a great post! I love these photos too.

  3. I’m glad you re-posted this. I’ve enjoyed a couple of ice wines. But, as you said, they can be hit and miss…

    Do you generally like them, or only occasionally?

  4. timmilford says:

    Thanks for publishing this again. Fascinating stuff! I’m going to make it my mission to start collecting Eisweins…

  5. My wife and I had some amazing eiswein in Banff on our honeymoon – I wish I could remember the vineyard or some detail, but it was several years ago. It was truly incredible stuff – somehow syrupy sweet, yet light and refreshing.

    • I know what you mean. The concentration of flavors goes both ways: sugar and acidity are retained at insane levels without the water to slow them down. They are one of a kind, and I am happy you had some on your honeymoon. That seems like a great occasion for each, wine and honeymooners. :)

  6. How do you like to drink them? I like straight up, but wondering if there’s a method or pairing Germans prefer.

    I think I have a few from Niagara region you should try…

    • Oh, when can I come over, John??? :)

      As for how to drink them. To me, they are so special for everything that they are, and so hard to pair with (especially when younger) that I usually (the one time I have one per year or so) make them my dessert. Nothing else necessary. Just good company and a small glass.

    • We picked up some Ice Wine from Inniskillin and Reif Family when we were in Niagara last spring . . . really lovely stuff! Incredible with foie gras, too. Prost!

      • Yes, foie gras is the true best friend if one has to pair it with food. I should let John know before I head over to taste his Niagara ice wines…I bet he’ll have an idea on how to prepare foie gras properly.

    • vintomas says:

      Well, I’m not German, but I think that ice wine, or at least young Riesling ice wine, goes particularly well with fruit desserts due to their generally “pure” notes, honeyed aromas and very fresh acidity. If it’s a ice wine that’s not too high in sweetness (or price) it could possibly be used as a very decadent aperitif, but they I hope you have guests who really appreciate sweet wines. Otherwise it’s a bit of a waste…
      Wines with noble rot tend to show more spicy notes, and if they have been raised in oak (such as Sauternes, Tokaji), I think that they go better with baked desserts, foie gras and strongly flavoured cheese. Aged ice wines and Vidal ice wines (more spice, a bit lower acidity) in my opinion tends to fall between these two profiles. So in this case they could go with for example foie gras or blue cheese.

      • Tomas, thank you so much for your detailed reply. I know you have way more experience with these kinds of wine than I do, so I am especially glad you took the time to comment. I will have to try a Riesling Eiswein with a fruit based dessert now. Sounds like an intriguing pairing.

  7. […] grapes for ice wine, Germany’s fabled treasures. I have written about ice wine in the past (here) but there is no way to better understand what makes this wine so special than actually seeing […]

  8. vawinepalate says:

    Thanks for the share! Love ice wine, but agree that it can be syrupy and best in small doses. I’m almost too embarrassed to admit that I thought the grapes were picked then frozen. Learning everyday.

    • Oh, like I mentioned, there are areas where the freezing takes place after the picking…but that is just not the real deal for me. The texture of good riesling ice wine is syrupy, but the acidity makes it dance on your tongue!

  9. […] set the tone with my ice wine post yesterday, it is my pleasure to write about this particular […]

  10. Carlos says:

    Great post Oli. Keep the level! I havent tried ice wine yet but in the contrary im already getting tired of the glueh wein :-)

  11. NJ Vinoman says:

    I have never tried ice wine, but this post makes me want to find some!

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