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First ice wine

Ice wine (Eiswein in German) is a type of dessert wine that can only be produced in teeth-chatteringly cold climates, like those commonly found in the depths of winter in countries like Germany and Canada.

The temperature has to be low enough for the grapes to naturally freeze while still on the vine, one of the key ‘rules’ about how ice wine can be made. This makes production even more weather-dependent than normal wine-growing – so bottlings are incredibly irregular (with one historian even calculating that there were only 10 ice wine vintages between 1875 and 1962).

Waiting for such extreme winter weather makes production of ice wine unbelievably risky for wine-growers, who have to leave their prized vineyards unharvested and potentially vulnerable to insects, storms and hungry birds for months on end.

Only when the night temperatures dip to -7˚C or lower for three or four consecutive days can the frozen grapes be hand-picked (often in the middle of the night) by brave individuals wearing thermals. This is usually sometime between December and February. The grapes then need to be pressed immediately using intense hydraulic pressure (the grapes are as hard as rocks, after all). This leaves the water behind as ice, and only extracts a minuscule amount of thick, rich yellow-gold liquid, highly concentrated in natural sugars and acidity – about 1/5th of the amount you’d normally get if you pressed unfrozen grapes.

Ice wine is prized for its unctuous, syrupy sweetness and concentrated tropical fruit notes. It’s seriously delicious!

So now we know what ice wine is, and how hard it is to make, let’s find out when it was first crafted (spoiler, there are several theories).

OK, let’s start with Pliny the Elder (or Gajus Plinius Secundus Major to give him his full title). He was an imperial administrator, lawyer, cavalry officer and naval admiral in the early Roman Empire (he lived from 23-79 AD). But he is most famous for his work as a naturalist and natural philosopher. In his spare time away from serving the Emperor, usually at night, he took it upon himself to write the most comprehensive encyclopaedia about Rome and Roman life that has ever existed (it is the largest work to have survived from the Roman period). In all, he wrote 37 books, organised into 10 volumes, discussing everything from anthropology and mineralogy to medicinal plants and viticultural techniques.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of references to wine, one of Rome’s abiding passions (it’s estimated that at one point Rome was drinking over 180 million litres of wine a year, which is about a bottle of wine a day per person). Book 14, called The Natural History of the Fruit Tree, specifically covers wine, including a ranking of Rome’s top vineyards. And while there’s no specific reference to ice wine, in Chapter 4 (Ninety-One Varieties of the Vine), he does talk about leaving grapes on the vine when the frosts come for a distinct sweetness.

“Some persons, too, have made out a Tarentine variety, with a grape of remarkable sweetness: the grapes of the "capnios," the "bucconiatis," and the "tarrupia," grow on the hills of Thurii, and are never gathered till after the frost commences.”

And we also know that wine from Chiomonte in the north of Italy, just west of Turin, was popular in Roman times, and today the town produces one of Italy's few ice wines. So while it is possible that Pliny is referring to ice wine in his writings, it’s more commonly assumed he’s talking about making a dried grape wine. This is when a wine-maker leaves the grapes on the vine until they essentially become raisins (or their juice has been concentrated), creating a sweeter and more intense wine. The technique is similar to the ice wine process but doesn’t rely on such consistently freezing temperatures for such a sustained period of time.

The next historical half-reference to ice wine isn’t until 1794. There is a great story, which sadly I can’t seem to back up with any hard evidence, that ice wine was accidentally discovered by monks in Franconia (a wine-growing region in the north-west of Bavaria, Germany), near the city of Würzburg.

As the tale goes, the monks harvested their Franconia vines at the same time every year, whether the grapes were ripe or not. But they weren’t officially allowed to start picking until they’d got the permission of the Abbot of Fulda, who lived about 100km away. As was usual, the monks sent a courier to the Abbot at the allotted time, but he had been called away on religious matters. Worst still, the grapes had ripened early that year (and were even starting to rot), so by the time they eventually got official word from the abbey, they feared they’d lost the harvest. But after pressing and fermenting anyway, they created something unique; a wine that’s known today as Spätlese or ‘late harvest’. And it’s said that due to this discovery, the grapes in Franconia were no longer ordered to be harvested on the same traditional date but were to be left on the vine much longer to increase the sugar levels in the fruit. But it is said that in 1794, the region then experienced a prolonged cold-snap much earlier than expected, with temperatures falling well below freezing, which froze the late harvest grapes. Despite the setback, the monks again attempted to press the juice from the rock-hard fruit (although history doesn’t relate how they did it). Of course, the subsequent wine had an unusually high concentration of sugars; and was duly christened ‘Eiswein’ (German for ice wine).

Right, so those are a couple of great if unsubstantiated stories about the origin of ice wine. But our first properly-evidenced mention of ice wine comes in the early nineteenth century, in Dromersheim, a district of Bingen on the Rhine, Germany. Documents suggest that frozen grapes were picked there on 11th February 1830, creating the first real undisputed mention of ice wine. Wine historians tell us that the harvest of 1829 did not take place that year due to the poor quality of the grapes. Instead, the farmers were left their fruit on the vine, destined as cattle feed. But the winter was particularly severe that year (right across Central Europe), with temperatures dropping to as low as -22˚C. When they came to picking them for their cows, they must have been intrigued about these solid grapes – and tried to press them. Only then did they notice that these frozen grapes gave very sweet, very delicious (and very little) juice. And German Eiswein was born.

Ice wine production very slowly improved over the years, but it wasn’t until 1960 that it was truly perfected by the wonderfully named Dr Hans Georg Ambrosi, known to his peers as the ‘father of Eiswein’.

It’s somewhat ironic that while Germany is globally recognised as the originator and spiritual home of ice wine, they can’t make it every year. That’s when Canadian winemakers realised they could make the most of their ferociously cold but perfectly consistent winters.

The first Icewine (the Canadians spell it as one word) to appear in Canada was made in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia by Walter Hainle and his son Tilman in 1973 – a grand total of 40 litres in all. Now Canadian Icewine is famous all over the world!


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