As you park up on a rainy evening in Winter, skip blindly across the gravel car park of your local hostelry trying to avoid ever widening puddles, you manage one purposeful bound and enter the snug bar to dry warmth and liquid conviviality. From his appointed seat at the end of the bar, your local sage flatters you with his welcoming, philosophical greeting “Perfect weather for ducks, eh?”  Having swept most of the rain off your hair and edged your damp feet nearer the fire, you grudgingly agree and politely respond: “Yes how true, it’s all so damned relative isn’t it?”


Well I got one of those, early on in the Christmas week although mine came down the telephone line into my office at home. Helmut, a wine making colleague from Austria, had called to wish me a Merry Christmas. We exchanged pleasantries and asked after each other’s families as well as our mutual Austrian acquaintance Heidi. Having established our continued bond he enquired as to the state of weather conditions in Norfolk. I replied “cold, icy, more snow and romantically seasonal, although the roads were a bit of a problem in some parts and the milkman couldn’t get through”. Helmut chipped in; “Yes fantastic, same here, although it’s well below freezing, minus seven at breakfast-time, great news!”  Great news, what was great about minus seven degrees? “We got out into the vineyards on the 22nd, and we have had two days at it, fantastic, all the grapes are frozen!”  See what I mean everything’s relative, but relative to what?

What profession can possibly get excited about sub-zero temperatures? Well the makers of that liquid gold known as Ice-wine, or Eiswein in Austria and Germany, certainly can and always do. Helmut lives in Illmintz, Heidi lives in Rust. They live on opposite sides of Europe’s largest lake the Neusiedlersee which apart from occupying a sizeable chunk of Austria stretches across the border into Hungary. In fairness it is more of an E.U. puddle than a lake with only three metres at its deepest point, however it stretches more than twenty five miles across its longest axis. The selected vineyards running along segments of its immense shoreline are the recipients of warm summer breezes and cool night mists. Such micro-climates provide almost perfect conditions for that magical fungus Noble Rot (Botrytis) which give us with some of the region’s finest sweet dessert wines.

What happens in a cold autumn, without rot, becomes even more alchemical. A section of ripe, plump, healthy grapes are left on the vines way beyond the Autumnal harvest in October. The winemaker prays for a deep, hard, early frost, not too hard as the grapes cannot be pressed, not too late or the birds will have polished off all the fruit. Optimum conditions will allow H2O in the grapes to freeze whilst leaving the sugar and all dissolved solids to remain in liquid form (they conveniently freeze at a much lower temperature). Once these frozen little grapes are picked, usually at dawn before any heat arrives with the early morning sun, the fruit is rushed to the winery. It is here, where an oddly named Pneumatic Bladder Press (something not dissimilar to a gigantic condom) is inflated within a perforated stainless steel tube wherein all the grapes will have been deposited. The bladder forms a large sausage pushing the grapes hard against the metal cylinder forcing all the sugar-rich juice out through the perforations, leaving the ice crystals within. This highly concentrated juice (or must) is then fermented. Because of the high sugar content and viscous character fermentation can take months, as opposed to normal table wines which will complete fermentation within days. The resultant finished wine is bottled as the liquid nectar we know as Eiswein.

Canada, with its understandably perfect winter climate, now makes more Ice-wine than all European countries put together, and delicious some of it is. A surprising achievement for a country that rarely figures in the world of wine gossip, but my own preferences still reside in Austria.

Now all this early morning Germanic vineyard activity, Lutherian prayers issued hourly for appropriate freezing temperatures, the constant fear of fruit loss by one scavenger or another coupled with a severely  extended fermentation period, do not make for a cheap wine, but all this concentrated effort does have a remarkable way of concentrating the flavours in your glass. One aspect that separates Eiswein from all other liquid flavour sensations is this coupling of ripe fruit, which produces correspondingly high acidity creating a suitably dry taste and the proportionately condensed sugar starches which offer in one mouthful the characteristically refreshing finish to a delightfully sweet wine. Nothing comes close to its uniquely moulded flavours.

As recent harvests had not been possible until well into the New Year, I wished Helmut and his little workers a perishing start to each day and my blessings for such an early freeze to come his way and stay below 7 for as long as their were solid bunches to select.