Long after the traditional harvest time has ended, some grape growers leave their grapes hanging on the vine, waiting for the ideal moment to pick them. Americans call it ice wine; Canadians, icewine; and Germans refer to it as “eiswein”; but it all comes down to that luscious, intensely flavored dessert wine. Keep reading to learn more about it!

A little bit of history…

Eiswein was first produced in Germany in the 1700s when one year, freezing weather blew in before harvest and froze the grapes on the vines. The wines were still made as planned, which resulted in this sweet nectar we now call eiswein. German immigrants then brought the practice over to Canada, where icewine started gaining popularity in the 1970s.

How is ice wine made?

Typical grapes used for ice wine production are Riesling, Vidal Blanc (highly popular in Ontario, especially the Niagara Peninsula) and the red Cabernet Franc. Some small lots also include Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon; while many vintners, especially from the New World, are experimenting making ice wine with other varieties, such as Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Merlot or Pinot Noir, and even Shiraz!

In the fall, while other grapes are already being harvested, grape growers net the vines to protect the grapes from being enjoyed by birds. These ripe grapes are then left on the vine until a sustained temperature of -8°C or lower is reached (generally sometime between December and February). During the time between the end of the growing season and harvest, the grapes dehydrate, concentrating the juices and creating the characteristic complexity and flavors of ice wine. The harvested grapes are pressed while still frozen, leaving only a small amount of concentrated juice for extraction.

Germany and Canada lead the world in ice wine production, though wine regions like the Finger Lakes, Austria, Oregon and Michigan are also recognized. Outside of these traditional regions that have almost-ideal climate conditions for ice wine production, some winemakers use cryogenic extraction, which is an artificial means of freezing grapes. This method obviously offers more control over production, with more consistence and lower costs, while avoiding the numerous problems of unpredictable weather. However, these wines cannot be labeled “ice wines”, and instead are given names like icebox wine or iced wine.

From vineyard pests to unpredictable weather, ice wine production is a real gamble for growers. Did you know that on average, only about 5 to 10% of the original crop actually ends up as ice wine? But it’s the rarity, unpredictability and inconsistency that make this winter wine so special.

How to pair your ice wine?

Make sure your chill your ice wine – it is enjoyed best cold. It is generally recommended to pair your ice wine with a rich and sweet dessert, but make sure not to overpower those flavors and have an overwhelmingly sweet pairing! Other than being a great dessert wine – either to accompany a light dessert or to be enjoyed as a dessert itself, after a meal – ice wine is also a perfect complement to rich, strongly flavored foods, such as foie gras and aged blue cheeses.

Our last fun tip: try adding a splash of ice wine to sparkling wine or wine cocktails to give them a new dimension! This will not disappoint.

Click here for more food & ice wine pairings ideas.