Contributed by Matthew Gaughan: wine blogger and educator based in Napa, CA. See Matthew’s blog Matthew’s World of Wine & Drink
When I first started taking wine seriously – as opposed to merely drinking it – one of the styles of wine which most intrigued me was Eiswein (or Icewine in English, it being one of the simpler German wine terms to translate). The idea of allowing grapes to freeze and the labour involved in picking those frozen grapes in the middle of the night in inhospitable conditions made the wine one to approach with respect, and even a certain amount of reverence. The high prices charged for Eiswein – necessarily so, given the time and cost of producing it – added to the intrigue: to taste one was a luxury.
Since then, I have learnt that a further challenge is to make an Eiswein that retains varietal characteristics rather than simply being a sweet wine packed full of sugar. As Eiswein is made from healthy, ripe grapes that are frozen on the vine to concentrate sugar levels, a rich, luscious sweetness can dominate. Riesling is an ideal grape to combat these challenges, due to its high acidity and complex aromas.
Another quality grape which can maintain high acidity into the cold winter is Grüner Veltliner. Indigenous to Austria, Grüner Veltliner has for some time been rightly fashionable for the dry whites made from the variety. These wines have a rich peppery mouthfeel, which comes naturally from the grape rather than from oak, together with an invigorating acidity.
I had previously never tasted, or seen, an Eiswein made from Grüner Veltliner, but it makes perfect sense. The sugar (the best dry whites, labelled Smaragd in Wachau, have at least 12.5% alcohol) and the naturally high acidity are ideal partners for a sweet wine.
The Rosenhof winery grow their grapes in Burgenland on the banks of the Neusiedlersee, a large lake where some of the best sweet wines in Austria are produced. Many of these wines come from grapes affected with noble rot, due to the humid conditions, so it must be a challenge to keep the grapes healthy enough that they can freeze and then be made into an Eiswein.
Their Grüner Veltliner Eiswein is called Orion, with a pretty label depicting the constellation, and it has a rich, honeyed nose, with cooked apricots and peaches, honeysuckle, orange blossom, and orange rind. It’s on the palate that the varietal characteristics become most apparent, with white pepper and ginger notes. A floral, spicy, and superb wine that’s varietally specific despite being so sweetly lush: the ultimate challenge of Eiswein successfully met. Moreover, a remarkable price at under $30 (375ml) for a high-quality Eiswein.
Coming soon: another Eiswein, but from a black grape…