It’s pretty freaking cold everywhere you go east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada right now, so it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about Ice wine. Our main wine focus of this episode is the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Vineyards in Bloomington, Indiana, though we drank this alongside the 2009 Golden Icewine Valley from Changyu in Liaoning, China, and the 2017 Late Harvest Vidal Blanc from Arizona Stronghold Vineyard, sourced from Bruzzi Vineyard in Young, Arizona. The latter, of course, isn’t an Ice wine but is still a varietal Vidal Blanc.
As it turns out, over half of the ice wine vintages made throughout the world are made from Vidal Blanc, because of just how hardy this grape is. Vidal Blanc (also known simply as Vidal), is a complex hybrid cross between Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) and Rayon d’Or. Vidal is very winter-hardy and produces surprisingly high sugar levels in cold climates. This aspect, combined with the natural tendency of Vidal Blanc to have moderate to high acidity, makes this varietal a favorite in harsh climates across the Northern Hemisphere, even being grown as far north as Sweden and Norway. Since these climates are prone to freezes, it makes perfect sense that the Icewine tradition would tend to find a home wherever Vidal Blanc is grown.
The secret of Ice wine is that it is produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids in grapes will not freeze, but the water within the grapes does. This means an incredibly concentrated grape juice results; the must is pressed from these frozen grapes, which results in a smaller amount of more concentrated, very sweet wine. Only healthy grapes kept in good shape are used for this wine; none of them may be infected with noble rot. Furthermore, time is of the essence, since re-thawing the grapes will cause them to spoil quickly since ice crystals destroy cell walls. Thus the harvest must be completed within a few hours on the first morning that is cold enough. The result of all this hard work is a wine with refreshing sweetness, balanced by high acidity.
Ice wine production is risky for several reasons: the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot, or are otherwise lost, for one. The production also requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop of grapes within a few hours, at a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough, often before sunrise. This results in rather small amounts of ice wine being made worldwide, making ice wines generally expensive. The bottles used for ice wines are generally small, holding only 375 mL of wine, as befitting this small production. The increased production of ice wine has been dramatically assisted technological inventions in the form of electric lighting, driven by portable generators, remotely-controlled temperature alarms, and the invention of the pneumatic bladder press.
While there are some indications in the writings of the world’s first wine critic, Pliny the Elder, along with the poet Martial, that the Romans were making vintages in this style on occasion (probably in Northern Italy), the first ice wine that we definitely know about was made in Germany in 1794. The story goes that the winter had been harsh, and some wine growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine to use as fodder for their animals; when the growers noticed that these grapes after being frozen yielded a very sweet must, they were pressed anyway, and a wine revolution slowly began. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, and there seems to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines. Over time, with the technological developments listed above, ice wine production became more common… but at the same time, growers in Germany, the region where this wine style was invented in the modern era, have noticed that in the last few decades, good ice wine vintages have been less common. Many vintners have cited climate change as the cause of this decline.
The first ice wine produced in the United States was made in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1981 by Great Western Winery. Today, Michigan leads the charge in creating ice wine in America; as an example in 2002, six Michigan wineries alone produced over 13,000 half-bottles of ice wine. The US law for ice wines specifies that grapes must be naturally frozen; the TTB declares that “Wine made from grapes frozen after harvest may not be labeled with the term ‘ice wine’ or any variation thereof, and if the wine is labeled to suggest it was made from frozen grapes, the label must be qualified to show that the grapes were frozen post-harvest.”