Wine-searcher has just published a helpful “Complete Guide to Ice Wine“. I’m often asked if Switzerland’s justly famous sweet late harvest wines are ice wines, because people from elsewhere assume that with snowy Alpine peaks this is a cold country and the grapes freeze on the vines. The term “vin de glacier” adds confusion to the picture.
At the end of this post you’ll find an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2008, on an older blog called Among the vines, about my first eye-opening tasting session of Swiss late harvest wines. They are among the world’s best, another one of those famously secret wine treasures because the quantity is so small – if you live in Switzerland you can find them easily, though, in wine shops and directly from wineries.
Ice wines and late harvest wines are sweet to very sweet, often drunk as dessert wines. Glacier wine is something completely different and is often closer in taste to a dry sherry. The only kinship is the notion of chilly! You can read a delightful firsthand account of Tamlyn Currin’s meeting with a true Swiss glacier wine, on JancisRobinson.com (here are a couple of photos from that day – I was part of the group of friends).
Switzerland makes a negligible amount of ice wine, most of it around Neuchatel and the Jura in the west and Zurich and wine areas near the border with Austria in the east.
(Anecdotally, an unknown quantity reportedly goes into making a facelift product, Vin-Uplift, that prompted international popular press headlines a year ago. It is made by Zurich cosmetics firm Mibelle, whose parent company is Migros – I haven’t had a reply from them about who supplies the ice wine.)
Frozen or well-chilled, but always desiccated
The most basic difference between ice wine (called icewine in Canada) and late harvest wine is that the grapes for the first are picked and used when they are frozen, and the grapes for the second shrivel either on the vine or, where this is too weather-risky, they are picked late then continue to raisin indoors on racks. The late harvest wines of the Grain Noble ConfidenCiel group in Valais must be botrycized, a relatively rare phenomenon also known as touched by noble rot or Botrytis cinerea. Valais is the region in Switzerland where this most commonly occurs, but it is weather dependent and doesn’t happen every year. The grapes are picked before they freeze.
The grapes of ice wines and late harvest wines are desiccated, meaning they lose water: shrivelled on the vine with late harvest wines, water left behind in the form of ice when frozen grapes are pressed for ice wine. Legislation varies from one country to another but in general, ice wines have higher sugar levels. Acidity also needs to be high to avoid cloying wines; good acidity makes it more likely the wines will age well.
Ice wines are made from a tiny amount of pressed juice and they ferment very, very slowly as a rule, part of the reason they tend to be costly. The taste is different from late harvest wines, especially noble rot ones, which are renowned for their notes of honey and apricot. Ice wines often have a sharper, mandarin taste despite being very sweet. Swiss wine writer Pierre Thomas led a comparative tasting a few years ago and the Swiss group concluded that ice wine (a developing fad at the time) simply wasn’t as good.
Note the difference between ice wine and iced wines, which may be made from commercially frozen fruit, with a marked quality difference.
From Among the vines, 8 September 2008, by Ellen Wallace:
… this weekend, at Vinea, I fell in love with sweet wines. For years, I thought they were best avoided, based on bad memories of Boone’s Farm apple wine in the 1970s and sugary Mateus wines from Portugal that my non-drinking mother thought was a great Christmas gift.
Sunday morning at 9:00 I went to a tasting session, open to the public at Vinea, of sweet wines made by more than 30 producers’ from Valais. The hour was not my choice, I assure you. These are winemakers who subscribe to the charter of Grain Noble ConfidenCiel wines, meaning they agree to a set of rules to guarantee quality. Afterwards I spoke to the co-director of Nez du Vin, a French company that sells wine aromas and wine courses. I mentioned my new love of sweet wines and he threw his arms up in excited Gallic fashion and cried out, “Oh! Those wines! They have you on your knees, why, it’s just like going to church!”
I think many of these are among the best drinks I have ever tasted, a startling discovery. They range in colour from pale gold to deep amber (photo to follow) and all are made with late harvest grapes, which means they are left on the vines until anywhere from late October to January. They shrivel, look unappetizing, give off a pungent grapey smell which permeates the winter vineyards. These withered grapes are referred to as flétri in French. Take a walk among the vines in January and you’ll find the odd one left on the vines: pinch it off and taste it: concentrate of grape but not as chewy or dry as raisined grapes.
In good years, and in a very few special places, some of the grapes develop Noble Rot, aka Botrytis cinerea. In a humid climate this can quickly turn the grapes rotten, with a couple notable exceptions. France’s sweet Sauternes are made from grapes plucked off the vine quickly once they are touched with Noble Rot, which gives them their special flavour.
But the Valais has a wonderful friend called the foehn, a warm dry wind that whistles down the Rhone Valley. It allows the Botrytis to develop well past the normal harvest, without the grapes putrefying. The result is a deep, rich, usually powerful wine that has a marked aroma of mushroom and truffle. The flétri wines are a paler shade of gold and are far more fruity, with an astonishly grapey aroma (not all wines smell primarily of grapes).
These are not wines I would drink with a meal, although some are wonderful as desserts wines, others are nice after dinner and a few work well before a meal, with the right dish. But where I would once have considered a Port or Armagnac after a meal I now think that a beautiful sweet wine, maybe with a handful of good walnuts from the tree down the road or a sliver of very dark chocolate, is a great way to end the day.