Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Demise of a Unique Wine

The canon of world wine is crowded with unique and unusual wines. Wine making, as we know it today, started centuries ago in Europe, with many of the wine rarities, discovered by accident, that have evolved over the years. Progress, unfortunately, doesn't always mean positive stability.

Before winter disappears completely, here is a look at German Eiswein, an iconic dessert wine that was discovered by accident and now faces an uncertain future. The 2019 German vintage was one of the warmest on record, prompting the German Wine Institute to declare there will be no 2019 eiswein.

The culprit is said to be climate change, with 2019 possibly being a harbinger of what is to come for the German wine industry.   

A Cold Discovery
In the winter of 1830, A German vintner mistakenly left some frozen grapes overnight in a harvest vat. The weight of the grape mass partially crushed some of the grapes on the bottom of the vat and the sweet juice fermented. The result of this fortuitous accident is what is known today in German wine making as eiswein (ice wine).

Germany is the northern most wine region in Europe and because of its location, the wine industry struggles most years getting grapes to ripen for wine. Some winemakers, however, gamble by leaving a portion of their grapes to freeze on the vine. If all of the conditions are right, the gamble pays off and the winemaker produces limited quantities of eiswein, one of the world's truly unique wines.  

Although eiswein is usually associated with the Rhine, it is made in other German wine regions where it gets cold enough. The key requirement for eiswein is the temperature to be at least 18F on a morning in November or December. Although rare, eiswein has been made from grapes frozen in January or February of the following year, the wine is still labeled for the year of the growing season.  

Image result for free German eiswein photos
German eiswein grapes

Most dessert wines, such as Sauternes and Tokaji, are made from botrytis infected grapes. German law does not forbid the presence of botrytis in eiswein, although most eiswein is not made from botrytized grapes. Still, in recent years growers have resorted to covering their vines with plastic sheeting to protect the grapes from birds and wild boar, but the practice is controversial as the plastic creates humidity, one of the things needed for the development of botrytis.

Frozen grapes are brought into the winery and pressed immediately to preserve the essence of the sweet juice or must. German winemakers measure must weight on the Oechsle scale, which is not easily converted to brix, the scale used by many other wine countries, including the United States. While it depends on the region, German eiswein must be 110-128 Oechsle, about 35 brix. The sweetness level for eiswein is at the same level as beerenauslese. If that level is not met then the wine is bottled as an auslese.

Understanding a few basic German labeling terms will help you make better buying decisions.
Under the German Wine Law, all wine is generally divided into Deutscher Wein and Qualitatswein. While it bears some similarities to the French AOC system, the more precise German Wine Law is unique and has provisions not found in other official wine requirements.

Within Qualitatswein are wines in pradikat ("distinction") categories based on must weight; must is a mixture of grape juice, skins, seeds and pulp. The pradikat categories:
Kabinett, lightest of the six pradikat wine
Spatlese, late harvest
Auslese, selected harvest
Beerenauslese, botrytized berry select
Trockenbeerenauslese, botrytized shriveled ("dry") berry select
Eiswein, ice wine
In cool growing years, non-pradikat German wines may be chaptalized or sweetened with sussreserve, a sweet reserve juice.

Riesling is the preferred grape for German eiswein, however there has been some  experimentation with other varieties such as Muller-Thurgau and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and even a few red grapes like Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).  A variety of grapes has been used to make ice wine in other places, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Merlot, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. 

Outside Germany, interest in ice wine has been active in Austria, the Alsace region of France and 16 other countries, including the United States. But there is one country that has made ice wine its premier wine.

Image result for free Canadian ice wine grape photos
               Picking frozen grapes in Ontario                               

Since the 19th century, Germany has had a lock on ice wines. Then, in 1972, the first Canadian ice wine was made in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Twelve years later, Inniskillin (the leading ice wine producer in Canada) made an ice wine from Vidal, a hybrid grape that proved to be a survivor in Ontario's punishing winters. Today, Canada produces more ice wine than any other, including Germany. 

United States
Interest in eiswein and ice wine has been sluggish in the United States. Perhaps it's because the plea has always been to drink dry. That may be contradictory, though, because, while American wine drinkers talk dry, sales figures show they drink sweet; Kendall-Jackson off-dry Chardonnay proves that point. 

Production of ice wine in the United States has mostly been limited to the Finger Lakes and Michigan. Great Western, in Hammondsport, made the first U.S. ice wine in 1981. Wineries in Michigan have turned out promising ice wine from Riesling and ice wine production has had modest success along Lake Erie, in Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

Cold Cash
German eiswein is usually sold in half-liter bottles and can cost $200.00. Canadian Ice Wines from Inniskillin or Jackson Triggs are available in 200ml and 375ml bottles, the later sell for $150.


Next Blog: Wines of Antiquity

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