Ice wine is difficult to make and quite expensive. But it’s sooo good!It’s been increasing in popularity, and more and more commercial winemakers are trying their hand at making high-end ice wines to meet the demand. If you’re a homemade winemaker, before you consider making ice wine yourself, you should know a little about what it is, how it is produced and what challenges you should expect along the way!
What is ice wine?
Ice wine is a category of high sugar, high acidity wines. Most ice wine is made from either Riesling, Cab Franc or Gewurztraminer. These varietals are more stable because they are more tolerant of staying on the vine for extended periods in a season. They’re typically enjoyed chilled, paired with lighter fare but best with desserts. Most are sold in small bottles of either 187 ml or 375 ml sizes. They are much more expensive than traditional white or red varietals, ports and other dessert wine. Most are produced in the US, Canada, Austria and Germany.
How is ice wine produced?
The goal of making ice wine is to produce very high levels of sugar, naturally creating a wine much sweeter than other dessert wines. Grapes are picked and pressed while still virtually frozen. When pressed, the water remains frozen, but the sugars are extracted and the resulting juice can have a brix of 35 to 50, vs. 20 – 25 for most red wines. This is done by allowing grapes to remain on the vine for months after a standard harvest, until the season’s first frost.
Because of the characteristics of ice wine, the fermentation process typically takes much longer. If you’re used to primary fermentation taking days, prepare for weeks or months before brix levels off.
Why is it so difficult to produce ice wine?
Does this look fun?
Commercial winemakers take a great deal of risk in making ice wine, given the challenges. It’s not easy picking grapes in the freezing cold. Most are picked in the middle of the night. That’s because they must keep them frozen until they are pressed. That often means driving grape bins through difficult, snow covered terrain. If grapes are left on the vine too long, they will either fall off of the vine or be too damaged to use. Timing is essential.
Once harvested, ice wine grapes must then be pressed in an unheated facility, usually with a basket press. It takes a lot of pressure to press frozen grapes and commercial bladder presses are not up to the task. That means loading frozen grapes into the press by hand and taking them out with an ice pick!
The volume of free-run and pressed juice is much lower and as a result, winemakers costs are much higher, per volume. This is all in addition to the market risk of producing a product that is not yet in huge demand by a large percentage of the wine-drinking public.
What about the homemade winemaker?
Making ice wine at home presents additional challenges. The most significant barrier will be the availability of grapes. You really need to have access to grapes that remain on the vine late, and live in an area that experiences fairly consistent winter weather patterns. If you can find frozen grapes to harvest, you’ll still need to find a way to press them while they’re still frozen. If you can deal with these two big issues, the rest will be much easier. Make sure you select a yeast designed for use with this type of production. Lalvin’s EC-1118 or ICV D-47 strains work best for these types of conditions.
Some winemakers have taken to replicating ice wine conditions. They will harvest late harvest grapes, then place them in a freezer, and press them while still frozen. This is not a true ice wine and most winemaking regions prohibit wine from being labeled ice wine unless it is harvested frozen on the vine. But this can be a great way for the home winemaker to experiment on his own.
You should be prepared for some real work in loading the basket, pressing juice and removing the pulp after press. As always, the first run will be highest in sugar content, so you should separate free run from pressed juice. Doing this will help you create a mix of final juice that has the sugar level you’re looking for.
Also, take extra caution in testing brix. Many hydrometers will not measure past a brix of 40. You’ll be testing some very cold juice, so either make a calibration adjustment to your measurement or allow the juice to warm to room temperature. Taking these extra steps will help you make something that is unique and really stands apart at your next wine club meeting.