Making ice wine apparently discovered by accident in Germany in the 1790s due to an early cold spell. Winemakers were caught out as they had not harvested the grapes, and were forced to either lose the harvest or to take a chance and press them in their frozen state. They chose the latter course and were surprised to find the resulting wine was excellent, and full of sweet, concentrated flavors.
It took a few years to perfect the art of pressing hard cold grapes, but eventually it became possible to do this without damaging the press, and the resulting wine, called Eiswein or ice wine, became quite popular.
The grape used in making ice wine is usually from Riesling or Vidal grapes, but can also be made from Chardonnay, or even some red grape varieties like Cabernet.
The variety must be hardy enough to survive prolonged cold spells, as the essence is that the grapes are allowed to remain on the vine until they are frozen, and then harvested in that condition, and kept frozen until pressed.
This process concentrates the water in the grapes as a lot of water is turned to ice and removed as such, leaving a highly concentrated juice of acids, sugars and flavors.
Making ice wine is expensive because of the high risk to the crop, creating limited supply, and also, because of the considerable amount of hands-on attention required. The grapes usually have to be picked by hand in the extreme cold of early morning.
In order to properly make ice wine yourself, you would need to live in a suitable climate, which in North America would be Oregon, Washington, or Michigan, where the temperature drops sufficiently to freeze the grapes.
In Canada, particularly the Niagara Peninsula, some of the worlds largest ice wine producers operate, with strict standards as to the sugar levels in the grapes used.
In Austria, Germany and Canada, the grapes must freeze naturally to be called ice wine. In some other countries winemakers can use mechanical freezing to simulate the effect of a frost. If growing your own grapes you will need to protect them from heavy rains, and from birds by means of netting.
You need to wait for a good frost before picking, but ideally no later than early December in most places to ensure good flavor, and usually very early in the morning when they are coldest.
You then need to press the juice out of the grapes before they defrost. The grape juice is then fermented as for a normal wine although the high sugar level in the "must" may lead to a slower fermentation or make it difficult for the yeast to get started.
An alternative method of making ice wine, is to freeze your grapes after picking, and then proceed as before. Follow these Fruit Wine Making instructions.
This method is considerably less time consuming and can give a passable result, a very pleasant sweet wine. Such wine would strictly be called an ice box wine rather than a true ice wine.
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