Ice wines are winter's hottest drink

Baby, it's cold outside. Which means it's the perfect time for ice wine – one of nature's coolest (and sweetest) discoveries!

Ice wine dates back to the late 1700s in Germany thanks to an especially cold harvest season. Much to their surprise, the freezing-cold temperatures produced a vintage with a high sugar content and amazing flavor. Soon, the new discovery caught fire and by the mid-1800s, the Rheingau region was famous for its invigorating eiswein.

Today, ice wines continue to tempt and delight purists. But casual drinkers – save for the occasional Riesling – remain wary of ice wines' undeservedly sugary-sweet reputation.

Sweet, yes. But syrupy? No way.

And that's a shame, because ice wines are specifically suited for the holidays and celebrations in general, with light flavors that range from honeyed and fruity to floral and more.

Then there's the aesthetic: Their sleek, slender bottle, the rich hue of the wine inside, the exotic names and that evocative qualifier: ice wine.

Everything about it is just so... cool.

So, to get to the truth of the matter, we reached out to James and Sydney Nederend of Koenig Vineyards, who've carved out a nice niche in the ice wine category, with support from former owner and winemaker Greg Koenig. Earlier this year, the winery won Best of Show at the 2019 Idaho Wine Competition (by unanimous decision, no less) for its 2018 Riesling Ice Wine. Here's what we learned from them:

IWC:  What makes ice wines different from other wines?

James: Ice wine is made by leaving the grapes hanging on the vine until the temperature drops low enough to freeze the berries (below 17° Fahrenheit), which concentrates the sugars and flavors. This usually happens in late November or December.

The grapes are then hand-picked and brought to the winery where they are pressed immediately. The water within the grape is left behind as ice, and only the sweetest juice is pressed out.

Making ice wine is extremely difficult. Mother Nature must cooperate and the grapes are hand harvested in the freezing cold temperatures. Since the grapes are frozen, we must shovel them by hand into the press.

Each berry only yields about 35% of the normal amount of juice, but it is highly concentrated. Typically, wine grapes have a Brix content of 24-28%, ice wine juice can have sugar levels up to 45%.

IWC: What type of grapes are used?

James: Riesling and Grüner Vetliner are typically used, however, many varieties can technically produce ice wine, as long as the right conditions are met.

IWC: Is there any special way to drink it?

James:  Ice wine should be served at 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit in normal white wine glasses to experience the full aromas offered. It should not be served too cold as the beautiful aromatics would be diminished.

Typically, it's served after dinner, where it makes a special dessert all by itself, or with a cheese plate (the fat in the cheese is a perfect foil to the high acid and sugar in the wine).

IWC: Upon pouring a glass, what should you expect to see, taste?

James: High-quality ice wine should not be syrupy sweet, but instead have more of a nectar mouthfeel when balanced with the natural acidity of the grapes. The color has a nice golden hue, and as the wine ages it tends to turn into a rich amber color. Oak-aged ice wine tends to have added complexity of creamy, vanilla flavors.

IWC: How long can bottles age? Should I drink it right away?

James: Depending on factors such as variety, winemaking style, and oak aging , most ice wines will age gracefully for up to 10 years.

IWC: Tell us about the ice wines you produce at Koenig.

James:  We produce Riesling ice wine as well as Cabernet Sauvignon ice wine, and in 2012 made a Reserve Oak-aged Ice Wine that was aged 4 years in new Hungarian oak barrels.

The Cabernet Sauvignon Ice Wine is one of the few in the world made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Most regions that grow Cabernet Sauvignon are far too warm in the winter to produce Ice wines. Idaho has a unique climate that allows us to do this.

The oak-aged Reserve is a rare example of using oak to age white dessert wine, and this is our experiment to match the flavors of the famous dessert wines from Hungary. We have been making Ice wine since 2001.

IWC: What is it about ice wines that appeals most to you?

James:  For us personally, ice wine is a unique treat at the end of a long dinner with friends or family that comes with a story.

Pour a glass and just chill

While Canada is renowned as the sweet spot for ice wines, (75% of ice wines come from Ontario), they don't have a lock on the market. Here in Idaho, we're lucky to live in a climate that's sufficiently frosty (this year's early fall, proves our point) to make some elegantly sweet selections of our own – as Koenig and other wineries have proven. 

So, don't be fooled by its too-sweet reputation. Ice wine, when done right, is a light, luscious and intensely flavored companion to cheeses and fruity desserts.

As with all things wine, the proof is in the pour. 

Besides, think how cool you'll be showing up to your next holiday party – with that sleek little bottle of golden nectar in hand – while everyone else comes in toting those old, familiar reds and whites.

Oh, what a sweet surprise!