Great Sweet Wines of the World Part 1: Eiswein, Germany’s Cold Gold

  • Kevin 
A bottle of Perter Jakob Kühn's 2000 Vintage Eiswein
A bottle of Perter Jakob Kühn's 2000 Vintage Eiswein
As the Germans say: “klein aber fein”…

I’m Canadian, and if there is one style of wine that Canada is well known for, it is Ice Wine. In a country like Canada, where winter is a given, temperatures will almost certainly drop well below freezing, allowing Ice Wine to be made regularly.

Not so in Germany, although most of the country is considered “cold climate” for viticultural purposes. No, in Germany, when there is a vintage where Eiswein has been made, it makes headlines. Collectors wait for it, and pay handsomely for every bottle. Naturally, in Germany, the typical grape for Eiswein is Riesling, possibly the world’s greatest white grape.

What is it?

Ice Wine (generally Eiswein in German) is a very sweet wine made from the juice of frozen grapes. Alcohol is always low – almost always under 8% abv. In Germany, Eiswein occupies the top tier of the Prädikatswein quality pyramid. Most Eiswein is made from white grapes like Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer or Canada’s beloved hybrid Vidal, but sometimes you will find it made from red varieties such as Cabernet Franc as well.

Why is it so expensive?

It is rare, and it tastes heavenly. It is difficult – and risky – to make. Yields in the vineyard are tiny, often just 10% or less of what they would be for other wines, which leads to miniscule quantities of wine.

Risk

Getting the right conditions for Eiswein in Germany is never certain, so if you want to take the gamble, you must set parcels of vines aside for the purpose.

Eiswein must be made from grapes that have hung on the vine until long after the harvest for other wines has finished. December. January. Even February. The reason for this is that the grapes have to freeze on the vine, and for that to happen the temperatures need to drop below -7°C – preferably -10 to -12°C. If that fateful day (or night, in fact) arrives, then the harvest must be completed at one go; there will be no successive passes through the vineyards. Harvests are done in the early hours of the morning, and the frozen grapes are pressed immediately. Almost without exception (there IS, however, one exception), harvests are required to be done by hand.

But that isn’t all. The grapes have to be healthy for a good Eiswein. The other two legendary German sweet wines, Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) are both made from grapes that have been afflicted with botrytis, the so-called “noble rot”. These grapes are far less desirable for Eiswein, as the character of Eiswein should be of great freshness and fruit concentration. But, considering the hang time of the grapes, there is a much higher risk of them falling victim to animals (who like sweet fruit just as much as you or me – possibly more),to bad weather, and to rot.

And then there is the grape must itself. The grapes are frozen on the vine, which means most of the water in the berry has turned to ice. What remains is concentrated juice with very high sugar and acid, the freezing point of which is much lower than the water. Sugar levels in the grape must for a German Eiswein must be at least as high as they are for a Beerenauslese. That’s sweet stuff. And the grapes will be processed in the cellar while they are frozen.

But Can It Age?

Yes, it absolutely can – particularly if it is made with a high-acid variety like Riesling. As a sweet wine, Eiswein has plenty of sugar. High sugar is one of the qualities that gives some wines the potential to age well. Some of the other qualities are high acidity, high alcohol, and high concentrations of polyphenols.

As a sweet wine made without drying or botrytis, the better question might be “does it improve with age”, because any wine that lives from the primary fruit and freshness is going to lose something as those flavours disappear and the wine starts to soften with bottle age. And primary fruit flavours are generally the first to go when a wine is ageing in bottle.

The Example

Naturally, it is no accident that I’m talking about aged Eiswein. It just so happens that I recently opened a bottle of the 2000 Eiswein from Peter Jakob Kühn, currently a biodynamic producer and member of Germany’s VDP, found in the Rheingau.

This wine cost a small fortune (clocking in at just under €70 for a 375ml bottle), and I had been waiting to open it for some time. And, to be honest, I was a bit worried about it, since I had no experience with aged Eiswein before.

I needn’t have worried. The wine was exquisite – even for a tough vintage like 2000 and the fact that it was, incredibly, bottled using a synthetic cork – something that have a reputation for permitting premature oxidation of the wines they are intended to protect.

Read more about that wine here!

Now go forth and enjoy some Eiswein; you absolutely will not regret it.

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