Wine 101: Icewine

This past weekend I was invited on a wine tasting adventure with six other wine influencers (hailing from Chicago, Miami, Florence, and Brazil!) I visited three wineries with them and was treated to a behind-the-scenes look into the wine-making process. We visited Lake Michigan Vintners, Domaine Berrien Cellars, and Dablon Vineyards. Though I have experience in Southwest Michigan’s wine industry, it was amazing to learn more from the owners and winemakers of some of the area’s premier wineries as well as talk with my group’s attendees. I have a lot to learn still — especially when it comes to international wines — and I am excited to do so during my free time.

Moving forward on the blog, I’ll be sharing some of the things I learned from this collaboration as well as tidbits I’ve picked up during my travels and past work experience. Perfectly fitting with the season and weather, I want to talk a bit about icewine. This unique wine was always questioned in the tasting room and comes with a wealth of history and flavors. So it is a great topic for today’s wine discussion!

Icewine, first beginning in Germany as eiswein, is a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been left to freeze naturally on the vine. The sugars do not freeze, but the water within the grape does allowing for a more concentrated grape. The end result is one of pure delicacy and sweetness. Not everyone can compete though…  There is an exact science to icewine-making and not everyone is cut out for the process.

If you have ever ventured to Southwest Michigan’s wineries in October or November, you may have noticed netting through some of the vineyards. These are grapes preparing to become icewine. Grapes with high acidity levels are used so the final product is not too heavy or sticky. Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, and Cabernet Franc varietals are most commonly used.

The icewine season starts with netting the grape vines in the autumn in order to protect the grapes from migrating birds. These grapes are then left on the vines until there is a sustained temperature of 17°F or lower. In Southwest Michigan, this temperature is usually reached in December, though there is no rule-of-thumb. We have yet to hit those sorts of temperatures consistently this year, and it is already mid-December. The only criteria in the United States to label “icewine” on a bottle is that the grapes must be frozen naturally. Thus wine-makers hoping to create this delicacy are subject to Mother Nature.

Reaching the right temperature is crucial. Production is all subject to how “hard” of a freeze the grapes experience. If a freeze happens too quickly, the grapes may rot. If a freeze is too severe, no juice can be extracted. There is also the consideration that if harvest is delayed for too long, the grapes may be lost to wild animals or dropped fruit. These factors often cause pickers to be out working late at night or early in the morning so that the grapes may be harvested at the exact right temperature and within only a few hours to increase odds of high crop numbers. I remember pickers at my first winery harvesting icewine grapes at 4:00 in the morning in order to have the correct conditions. It truly is a demanding process!

You will find a number of wineries in Southwest Michigan go through this grueling harvest and wine-making process though. With its proximity to Lake Michigan, the area offers an ideal climate for icewine production: warm summers and cold (but not too cold) winters. The warm summer ripen and sweeten the grapes, and the cold winters – obviously – freeze them. During the time between the netting of the icewine grapes and their harvest, the grapes dehydrate. Dehydration concentrates the juices and creates the characteristic complexities known in icewines.

While still frozen, the harvested grapes are pressed. This stage in the icewine process leaves most of the water behind as ice. Only a small amount of concentrated juice is extracted. The expected yield for an icewine grape is 15% that of a table wine. However, the juice is very sweet. The juice then is put through the fermentation process. The high sugars create difficulty for fermentation resulting in low alcohol and high sugar levels in the finished product.

Due to the frozen grapes yielding such small quantities of juice, the overall production amount of icewine is considerably lower than table wines, usually by 10-12%. As any supply-and-demand dictates, true icewines are typically more expensive than table wines. It is not uncommon to pay $40+ for a bottle of icewine in Southwest Michigan, and $100+ for a 375mL bottle in Canada! And icewines can have a multitude of different tastes depending on the varietal used. All varietals offer a delicate sweetness with a firm acidity, making them perfectly balanced. Icewines offer intense flavors, boasting aromas, and flavors of tropical fruits. One of the best delicacies from this weekend’s experience was Domaine Berrien’s 2017 Cabernet Franc Icewine I was able to taste.

Wally, owner and winemaker at Domaine, provided an in-depth tour of his wine-making facility and private cellar. I have always been a fan of Domaine, but tend to stick with their drier wines as they are top-notch in Southwest Michigan. However, Wally also offered an elegant alternative in the form of his icewine at the end of our tour. This dessert wine was a beautiful golden color and offered rich flavors of candied orange and honey. The aroma had a hint of apricot as well. With a residual sugar of 28%, a sip brought you back to your childhood with thoughts of running through a candy store.

The best way to enjoy an icewine is – you guessed it – chilled. Being a dessert wine, it pairs well with sweets, but can stand alone as a dessert in and by itself. It is that sweet! Don’t fret if you are not one for dessert though. Due to its richness, icewine is a perfect complement to strong-flavored foods such as aged blue cheeses and steamed lobster. Icewine also pairs well with other wines, especially sparkling wines. Splash them together for a dimensional cocktail!

Trying an icewine is a delicacy, and one I definitely recommend. Please feel free to share some of your favorite icewines in the comments below — I would love to extend my taste buds past Southwest Michigan’s offerings!

Sweet tastings, my friends,

 

 

 

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