There are indications that frozen grapes were used to make wine in Roman times. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) wrote that certain grape varieties were not harvested before the first frost had occurred. The poetMartial recommended that grapes should be left on the vine until November or until they were stiff with frost. Details as to the winemaking and description of these wines are unknown. It cannot be completely ruled out that the descriptions refer to dried grape wines, a common style of wine in Roman times, where the raisin-like grapes were harvested late enough for the first frost to have fallen. In either case, the method seems later to have been forgotten.
It is believed that the first post-Roman Icewine was made in Franconia in Germany in 1794. Better documentation exists for an ice wine harvest in Dromersheim close to Bingen inRheinhessen on February 11, 1830. The grapes were of the 1829 vintage. That winter was harsh and some wine-growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine for use as animalfodder. When it was noticed that these grapes yielded very sweet must, they were pressed and an Icewine was produced. It should be noted that sweet wines produced from late harvestedgrapes were well-established as the most valued German wine style by the early 19th century, following the discovery of Spätlese at Schloss Johannisberg in Rheingau in 1775, and the subsequent introduction of the Auslese designation. These wines would usually be produced from grapes affected by noble rot. Thus, Eiswein is a more recent German wine style than the botrytised wines.
Throughout the 19th century and until 1960, Eiswein harvests were a rare occurrence in Germany. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, including 1858, the first Eiswein at Schloss Johannisberg. There seem to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines during this period, and their production was probably the rare result of freak weather conditions. It was the invention of the pneumatic bladder press which made the production of ice wine practical and led to a substantial increase in the frequency and quantity of production. 1961 saw the production of a number of German Icewines, and the wine increased in popularity in the following years. The production has also been assisted by other technological inventions in the form of electrical lighting driven by portable generators (to assist harvest in the cold hours of morning darkness, before the grapes thaw) and plastic films that are used for “packaging” the vines in order to protect the ripe grapes from being eaten by birds while the producer waits for frost.
The pioneer status of the Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario led to their first ice wine, produced in 1984 under the direction of the winery’s Austrian-born co-owner Karl Kaiser, often being mentioned as Canada’s first ice wine. However, ice wine was produced in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia by German immigrant Walter Hainle in 1972. This ice wine was the result of an early and unexpected frost, and yielded 40 litres of wine, which Hainle originally did not intend to sell, although he did so in 1978. In 1983, Karl Kaiser and Inniskillin’s German neighbour Ewald Reif, as well as two wineries with Austrian winemakers located in another part of Ontario, Hillebrand and Pelee Island, all left grapes on their vines in order to try to produce ice wine. Inniskillin and Reif lost their entire crop to hungry birds, while Hillebrand and Pelee Island were able to harvest a minuscule amount of frozen grapes. In 1984, Kaiser used nets to protect his vines and was able to produce Inniskillin’s first ice wine. This wine was made from Vidal grapes and was, in fact, labelled “Eiswein.”
After the Icewine production was set on commercial footing, Canadian Icewine quickly became popular with domestic consumers and reviewers, and many other Canadian producers and regions picked up the idea, since the harsh Canadian winters lend themselves well to the large-scale production. The international breakthrough of Canadian ice wine came in 1991, when Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal ice wine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. The Canadian trend towards increased cultivation of Vitis vinifera (European) grape varieties in the 1990s expanded the palette of varieties available to be bitten by frost. By the early 2000s, Canada was established as the largest producer of ice wine in the world. More international recognition came in 2007, when Monde Selection, the international institute in Brussels, Belgium, awarded the Grand Gold medal—the highest honor rarely accorded to a wine—to Canada’s Northern Ice Vidal Blanc Icewine 2005, the first vintage of The Ice House in Niagara, a winery founded by winemaker Jamie Macfarlane.
In Germany in the early 2000s, good ice wine vintages have been more rare than throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many wine-growers cite climate change as a cause, and this received support from a study by theGeisenheim Institute.