What do you call a German sweet wine that is harvested after a frost to concentrate the sugar and acid when you pride yourself in making primarily great Italian and Southern European dry wines? If you are Papa Joe’s Wine Cellar, you call it Ghiacciato. Everyone else calls it ice wine, or the German eiswein. it is possible that ice wines date back to the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. It is more likely, however, that the grapes dried on the vine before freezing. Those wines were more likely what would be considered today to be late harvest wines, where the grapes were allowed to dry, or raisin, on the vine, taking advantage of Bortyris cinerea, or noble rot, to dry the grapes and concentrate the sugars before the grapes froze. Winemakers who make ice wines, on the other hand, depend on an early hard frost to freeze the grapes before the Bortyris growth progresses appreciably. In this case, the concentration of the juice is a result of pressing hard frozen grapes, thereby limiting the concentration of juice in the final product.
True ice wine more likely dates back to 1794 in Franken, Germany. The first frost came early before a considerable proportion of the harvest was completed. The remaining grapes were pressed frozen, and the resulting wines had a high sugar content and were very flavorful. The wines were popular, and by the mid 19th century, eiswein became a staple of the Rheingau region of Germany. The first North American ice wine was most likely produced by the Inniskillin Winery in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario in 1984. Currently, Germany and Canada are still the major producers of ice wines, although over the past 20 years or so, the practice has proliferated in the Finger Lakes and on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in New York and Pennsylvania and in wine growing regions of the upper Midwest, where early frosts are common. Our own ice wine is made using Vidal Blanc juice from Presque Isle Wine Cellars in North East, PA. Presque Isle presses the grapes naturally frozen and distributes the fresh juice to wineries and amateur wine makers.
The grapes for ice wine are pressed at approximately 20 degrees F (-7 degrees C) to yield a concentrated juice where only 10-20% of the juice is pressed off the grapes. For this reason, ice wine tends to be on the pricey side, generally being sold for $50 for a 375 ml. bottle (split, or half bottle). We sell ours for $28, a relative bargain, but still considerably more expensive by volume than any of our other varietals. The fermentation process is relatively slow because of the high initial sugar content and relatively low pH. German and Canadian standards for ice wines require a residual sugar content of >12% (compared to our Moscato at 6%) and total acid content of >1% (compared to most of our whites at .7-.8%). The high acid content does serve to offset some of the sweetness.
The most common grapes used for ice wines are naturally those that thrive in colder climates. White ice wines include Vidal Blanc, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Chenin Blanc. Reds include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ice wines, being fruity and extremely sweet, pair well with desserts that aren’t excessively sweet and with enough fat content to balance out the sweetness of the wine. Good pairings include cheese cake, ice cream or gelato, and white chocolate. They also pair well with soft mild cheeses like Brie.