What's the story with eiswein?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can anyone tell me the true facts on where eiswein, a.k.a. ice wine, was discovered?

—Lisa

Dear Lisa,

Ice wine (or icewine, or eiswein in German) is a type of dessert wine that's made from grapes that were frozen while still on the vine. The water freezes, but the sugars and other dissolved solids do not, so the result is a very concentrated, very sweet wine. Unlike freeze distillations (used to make applejack and other beverages like the short-lived "ice beer"), ice wines are frozen before fermentation begins, not afterwards. Most ice wines come from Canada and Germany these days, although there are efforts all over the world.

As far as when it was discovered, no one knows for sure, but the most common belief is that it was accidentally discovered in the Franconia wine region, near the city of Wurzburg, in 1794. An unexpected frost froze the grapes, and the region's vintners wanted to salvage the crops by picking and pressing the frozen grapes. It wasn't until the late 1960s that Dr. Hans Georg Ambrosi ("The Father of Eiswein") began experimenting with ice wines in Germany, influencing many contemporary producers.

Interestingly, unlike grapes from other dessert wines such as Sauternes and Tokaji, ice wine grapes tend to not be affected by Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot. This gives ice wines a nice refreshing acidity. Typical ice wine grapes include Vidal, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and even Syrah.

Making natural ice wine comes with a lot of risks and expenses. Legally, natural ice wines require a hard freeze, which means getting down below 20° F. Grapes are left hanging on the vine for months following the normal harvest, making them susceptible to all kinds of problems (and critters). If the freeze doesn't come quickly enough, the grapes can rot and the crop will be lost. If the freeze is too severe, no juice can be extracted. (A winery in Canada purportedly broke its pneumatic press on too-hard frozen grapes.) And you have to both pick and press the grapes while they're still frozen, which means careful handling, and harvest help working in the middle of the night and in unheated spaces. And then the super-high sugar levels means ridiculously slow fermentations, which can cause winemakers sleepless nights.

There are also "non-natural" ice wines, in which a producer picks the grapes and then freezes them mechanically. Sometimes these are referred to as "icebox wines" or "iced wine."

—Dr. Vinny

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