Jun 22 2012
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!
Ice wine basics
Ice wine is so called because of the method used when harvesting and crushing grapes. This creates a very sweet, highly acidic wine that is usually enjoyed cold and paired as you would pair a dessert wine. Because of the methods used, it’s typically created in countries that experience longer freezing times and is made with grape varietals that are hearty and can withstand such climates.
What are the actual steps in making ice wine?
The purpose of making ice wine is to craft a sweet winesweeter than other dessert wines like port or sherry. Grapes are left on the vines for weeks and months after the traditional harvest, then picked and crushed frozen. This produces grape juice that is extremely high in sugar content and lower in water and total volume. Ice wine is usually 10 degrees brix higher than other wine types. Because of the higher sugar content, expect fermentation to take a lot longer than usual to reach the dry stage.
What’s so tough about making ice wine?
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.
So can I make ice wine at home?
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.