Ingo Deckler was born and raised in Würzburg, the heart of the German wine region Franken (Franconia) where he still lives and works. Ingo is a wine enthusiast and self-declared ambassador of Franconian wine.
It is a morning in December, 7:00 a.m., just before dawn in a vineyard named Pfaffenberg, just north of Würzburg. As the city awakens, a fresh layer of snow dampens the usual sounds. The vines are powdered with tiny crystals and it is cold, very cold. The temperature fell below -10°C (14° F) on this particular night. It is a romantic scene, but the stalwart group gathered on this morning is interested neither in the amazing view of the city nor in the lovely winter setting.
Let’s change locations for a minute, to another vineyard on the other end of the city. The weather conditions are nearly the same there above the small town of Randersacker to the south of Würzburg. The Main River smoothly flows as a wide dark band through the valley and toward the city. Another small, hearty group gathers in the darkness. They are hooded and equipped with a bucket in one hand and pruning shears in the other.
In both vineyards, the harvest teams have a single mission: to bring in the very last harvest of the year. Believe me when I tell you, it is a challenging endeavor to produce the exclusive specialty called Eiswein.
All-in for a gambler’s game!
The production of Eiswein (Ice Wine) is an all-or-nothing gamble. During these times of global warming the needed conditions are becoming rare. The grapes can only be harvested once the temperature falls below -7° C (19° F). Because of the risk, only a handful of Franconian vintners commit to this venture each year. The two we are highlighting here are Christian Reiss, head of the Weingut Reiss in Würzburg and Thomas Schenk, junior co-owner of the wine estate Winzerhof am Spielberg in Randersacker.
The awkward working conditions, in the cold darkness of the steep vineyards, present one of the difficulties. It is done entirely by hand. The second challenge is the urgency of harvesting and transporting the grapes to the winery as quickly as possible. The grapes are picked frozen and need to see the wine press before they thaw. In this way, the frozen water can be separated to extract only the essence of the grapes and gain a very sweet must, which is then carefully turned into the exclusive, naturally sweet delicacy called Eiswein.
Unlike other naturally sweet wines like Sauternes of France or the German Trockenbeerenauslese, which gain their sweetness because of the noble rot (Botrytis), the grapes for the Eiswein must be prevented from contracting this disease. Botrytis, which is a fungal infection, thrives in the damp and humid conditions near the river. So for Eiswein it is necessary to find a vineyard, which is protected from the common morning fog of the Main region.
What makes this specialty so precious is not only the risk of the total failure, if the right conditions are not attained, but also the small yield of the harvest. While the average yield for a usual harvest is at about 7500 liters per hectare (2.47 acres) or 10,000 bottles, Eiswein harvests yield only one fifth of that volume. To balance this out a bit it usually is sold in smaller bottles of 0.375 liters. No, just kidding. The reason for the smaller bottle is that you usually drink it in smaller pours than ordinary wine.
So you see, the vintner needs the guts to dedicate some of his best and healthiest grapes to a gamble, not knowing if it will pay off. But if he wins this game he can call for a many times higher price than for all his other wines. And that is no joke.
Where, what and how?
We are talking about Franconia here, one of the thirteen German wine regions, and when discussing Franconia we are certainly referring to Silvaner, which is the region’s signature grape variety. The Franconian wines made from Silvaner are usually produced bone dry, but the rare examples harvested as Eiswein are very high in sugar. We see residual sugar in the range of 250 g/L and above, but what makes the Eiswein of Franconia so unusual is the characteristically high acidity. This tends to buffer the high sweetness resulting in a wine that does not become too opulent but balances its richness with finesse.
In the glass, Eiswein usually appears golden in color, with an almost oily viscosity. Aromas are reminiscent of quince, honey, peach, citrus and many others. With its sweetness and the elegant body it is the perfect companion for sweet desserts. One might think that this compound the sweetness, but the opposite is true. The richness of the dessert is cushioned by the sweetness of the wine and vise-versa. Of course a blue cheese also pairs quite well with Eiswein.
Another advantage of the high sweetness of Eiswein is that you can store it nearly forever. The sugar preserves it from spoilage and it gains additional flavors with maturity. Consider taking a bottle of Eiswein home and setting it aside for your children or grandchild.
So, who are those brave vintners?
The Pfaffenberg (German for something like “parsons hill”) is one of the top sites of the Weingut Reiss. The family-owned estate is located in Würzburg, the heart of the German wine region Franconia. The Reiss family has cultivated vines in and around Würzburg since 1800, with emphasis on the typical Franconian varieties Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau along with Pinot varieties and Riesling.
The Eiswein from the estate Winzerhof am Spielberg comes from a small spot called Tiefe Klinge (low blade), which is part of the general appellation called Ewig Leben (eternal life)—lovely names, aren’t they? The Winzerhof am Spielberg is a family owned and operated estate, located in Randersacker, a premium wine town, sitting on the Main River just a few miles from Würzburg. Otto Schenk and his son Thomas are ninth and tenth generation winemaker. The main varieties are the flagship grape of Franconia, the Silvaner, as well as Riesling, Müller-Thurgau and the German answer to the Sauvignon Blanc, the Scheurebe. Along with Pinot Noir and the Franconian Domina, there are also some great red wines coming out of their cellar.