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Ice Wine: Everything that you need to know

Harvest is a stressful time for a winemaker or vineyard manager. Getting the grapes to come in at the right level of ripeness, acidity and skin quality is a game of patience and careful decision making, and is essential toward ensuring a smooth winemaking process. More importantly, it is essential for getting the right inventory so a winery can meet it's costs. Regardless, amongst all harvests done for various styles of wine, there are few that are as stressful as an icewine harvest.

Icewine happens to be all the rage. It's the style of dessert wine that gets the most questions due to its unique name, so let’s take some time to answer a few of them. First, ice wine does not actually contain ice. If you thought this article was about wine slushies, then unfortunately you are sadly mistaken. To get straight to the point, icewine is a dessert wine that has a significant level of residual sugar due to it's concentration when finally harvested. They can be an awesome treat if made by the right producer, yet not all are created equal (addressed later if you plan to stick around).

The choice for a winery to make an ice wine is a tedious one. Why? The grapes for an icewine have to last on the vine until January. Whereas most harvests are over at some point by mid to late October (they rarely stretch into November) an icewine harvest takes place usually at some point in early to mid January to harvest incredibly concentrated berries with a high sugar content. As cool as making icewine sounds, the decision to allow a portion of your harvest to remain on the vine past October can be filled with challenges and risk:

  • As weather becomes more intense moving into the winter, an icewine harvest can be dashed overnight by a strong event of nature. Blizzards with high winds, intense rain and other factors can immediately destroy whatever is left on the vine in hours. Imagine losing a portion of your harvest that could have been used to make more of another wine in your portfolio. A bummer to put it lightly.
  • Winter is also the season where forest creatures finish up scavenging for food. If there is anything left on a tree or a bush, rest assured vines are no exception to this, and thus any leftover fruit is an easy target. A vineyard manager who lets his guard down for a day with grapes still on the vine can wake up the next morning to all the fruit eaten by hungry uninvited guests.
  • Grapes with low acid is another problem that can more so turn out in the finished wine. This is one of the reasons why icewine harvests can only occur in certain vintages. A vintage that is noted as being particularly hot runs into the danger of creating riper than usual grapes. Icewine needs plenty of acidity to balance the otherwise stark sweetness in the final wine. Acidity is essential toward creating a quality icewine, as an icewine that lacks in this area comes across as incredibly cloying with no leavening from any freshness.
  • One would think that botrytis rot, or noble rot, would be a component in a wine that is harvested later than usual such as this, adding necessary flavor like in the wines of Sauternes or Tokaj. In fact, it is quite the opposite, as icewine grapes cannot contain any form of rot. Since icewine grapes must last well into the later part of the season for harvest, any rot that infects will destroy the berries by the time harvest comes around. If any berries are found to have rot, they must be immediately discarded once the harvest happens.
  • Like any other harvest, the harvest has to be timed right and done well with careful attention. If the grapes are too frozen on the vine, then an even smaller amount of already minute juice will be extracted. To add to this, the grapes must be pressed right away before any thawing occurs to the berries

With all the factors mentioned above, an icewine is quite expensive, normally averaging at around $50 or more for a half bottle due to its small production turnout and the high risk associated with its production. However, made in the right hands with the right care and understanding, an icewine can be a delicious treat that beckons you to buy more. A solid go-to for the best quality paired with moderate accessibility is the Canadian producer Inniskillin. This Niagara Peninsula estate makes real icewine from a wide variety of grapes, including Riesling, Vidal Blonc and even an obscure Cabernet Franc example that is well worth mentioning.
A Word On Inexpensive Incewine
If there were any takeaways from the words above, it would be that icewine is extremely hard to make for even the most experienced winemaker, thus justifying its high retail value. Those whom have experience with perusing the shelves of many stores have likely been exposed to a handful of not as expensive “icewines”. As mentioned before, the average icewine from a reputable producer retails anywhere from $50 upward. Granted while there are closeouts that occasionally occur in the supply chain, an “icewine” that is found below the $30 price point is something to be suspicious of. Here’s why:
The term ‘icewine’ is not a protected term in countries where wine law is not as strict. Thus, it’s production methods are not always as traditional as keeping grapes on the vine until January. Some wineries who make “icewine” will opt to harvest grapes normally and produce a cheaper alternative by freezing grapes artificially in a centrifuge-like machine and then press the grapes directly after the process is done. This is not actual icewine, and thus, it is advised that an icewine made in this manner should not be held to the same standard of quality in comparison to a winery that keeps the grapes on the vine into the winter.

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