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German Eiswein - A Highly Esteemed Specialty
2009-01-06
Stakes are high when wine-growers take a risk. At stake are grapes that are left on the vine longer than usual to wait for temperatures to drop to at least -7¡ãC (19.4¡ãF). This game with Mother Nature can go on until January, in rare instances, until February. "For wine-growers, this is an all-or-nothing venture," explains Ernst B¨¹scher of the German Wine Institute/Mainz, "since the gamble involves the risk of a total loss of the unpicked grapes, as was the case in 2006, when next to no Eiswein could be harvested."
 
On average, only about five to ten percent of the original crop actually ends up as Eiswein. The rest of the grapes are harvested selectively or succumb to variable weather conditions.
 
A Vintner¡¯s Masterpiece
The actual Eiswein harvest, often in the wee morning hours, is a strenuous task. The frigid temperatures leave fingers stiff and painfully sore. Picking the frozen grapes is laborious, and in the end, yields a mere three to five hectoliters per hectare. Nevertheless, the production of Eiswein remains a fascinating challenge for many a grower. They view these wines as masterpieces, a niche market product ¨C but also as proof that particularly in cool climates, concentrated wines that are rich in extract can be produced.
Eiswein not only captivates wine-growers. Eiswein fans the world over monitor temperatures throughout the harvest and hope for a sudden cold spell. It is produced as a rarity and calls collectors into action. These noble growths have their price, but the few bottles that are produced are quickly sold out.
 
The Berries Must Freeze on the Vine
More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans were the pioneers of systematic viticulture in Germany. Whether or not they produced Eiswein is open to debate. The first documented mentions of Eiswein date from ca. 200 years ago. However, only in the past few decades has Eiswein production and marketing reached a relatively larger scale. With the 1982 amendment to the German wine law, Eiswein became an independent Prädikat (special attribute) with prescribed minimum starting must weights equal to those of Beerenauslese. These vary from region to region and range from 110¡ã to 128¡ã Oechsle.
 
Eiswein, with its highly concentrated extract and relatively high acidity ¨C a phenomenon that occurs when the berries freeze while still on the vine ¨C remains unique in comparison with its lusciously sweet counterparts, e.g. Auslese, Beerenauselse, and Trockenbeerenauslese. Temperatures of at least  -7¡ãC (19.4¡ãF) or better yet, 10 to -12¡ãC (14 - 10.4¡ãF), are necessary for the grapes to freeze sufficiently. At the break of dawn (or earlier) the naturally frozen grapes are picked and pressed immediately, while still frozen. The water content of the grapes remains as a block of ice in the press and only the very sweetest essence of the berries, whose freezing point is lower than that of water, is extracted.
 
Coping with grape must, or juice, with such a high sugar content is a challenge for the yeasts that convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide: sometimes, almost too much to deal with. Fermentation is slow and lengthy. As a result, German Eiswein has a high natural sweetness (unconverted sugars) of well over 100 grams per liter, and compared with their Mediterranean dessert wine counterparts, a relatively low alcohol content ¨C sometimes as low as seven percent by volume.
 
Eiswein Doesn¡¯t Happen by Accident
Vintners who opt to produce Eiswein do so with a plan: quality reigns over quantity. This requires preparation and commitment. ¡°Eiswein doesn¡¯t happen by accident,¡± emphasizes Ernst B¨¹scher, ¡±it requires strict, quality-oriented vineyard maintenance throughout the growing season. This includes stringent pruning in spring to reduce yields, and a selective ¡®green harvest¡¯ prior to the main harvest, during which unripe and unhealthy grapes are discarded. Only then can grapes remain on the vine long enough to offer the prospects of a high-quailty Eiswein.¡±
 
When the grapes are fully ripened, the parcels devoted to Eiswein production are partially defoliated and wrapped in finely perforated (breathable) polyethylene sheeting or nets to protect the grapes from hungry birds. These grape-saving devices were first introduced in the 60s, and without them, it would be impossible for grapes to remain on the vine until December or even January. The sheeting does not bring about climatic changes or improvements. 
 
Great Eiswein Requires Healthy Grapes
Ardent Eiswein wine-producers meticulously look for healthy grapes that have not been attacked by botrytis, the fungal disease responsible for ¡°noble¡± rot. The grapes for making a truly great Eiswein should be as healthy as possible. Herein lies the difference in flavor between Eiswein and other lusciously sweet wines, such as Beeren- or Trockenbeerenauslese: a high-quality Eiswein does not have the characteristic honeyed flavors associated with noble rot. The healthy condition of the grapes for Eiswein ensure fresh, concentrated fruit flavors and the wines usually have a relatively vigorous acidity. As such, they are enjoyable even in their youth.
 
The Crowning Touch to a Culinary Feast
Eiswein is a magnificent way to enhance festive occasions and is prized by gourmets as an outstanding ap¨¦ritif. Served at the end of a grand meal, Eiswein promises a brilliant finale. Bearing in mind that ¡°birds of a feather flock together,¡± Eiswein goes particularly well with fruity desserts, ice cream or sorbets.
 
Although it sounds far-fetched at first, Eiswein served with ripe, blue-veined cheese is an interesting combination. On the one hand, there are the salty to slightly bitter notes of the creamy cheese; on the other hand, the fruity, sweet aromas of the concentrated wine that envelop the tongue and palate. They beautifully complement each other and make for a taste sensation.
                                       (Quoted from website of German Wine Institute/Mainz)
 


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