The weather is bitter on this January morning at the Koenig vineyard southwest of Caldwell. The nearby Snake River has the same sludgy, cement gray look of the sky above and the sharp wind slicing across that river cuts into every inch of unprotected flesh. In other words, it's a beautiful day for ice wine.
"Ice wine is unique in that the grapes have to be frozen," says winemaker Greg Koenig as we shiver through leafless rows of grape vines. "Ice wine is concentrated by freezing, and the water molecules within the berries stay frozen and don't come out when you press it." Koenig pulls at a bare, brittle cane. "Only the sweetest juice or the sweetest must comes out."
It has to get nasty cold for the water trapped in a grape to freeze sufficiently: 18 degrees or lower. That means, in this part of Southern Idaho, waiting for the mercury to take a steep dive somewhere on the calendar between mid-November and mid-January. Then, on a perfectly frigid morning, it's suddenly harvest time.
"It's a real pain," says Koenig with a tight smile as he pulls the collar of his coat around his neck. "It's cold, it's frosty, the tractors don't start. It's pretty miserable. And lots of times people come out and say 'Oh, we want to help you with ice wine harvest.' We laugh and invite them back, and the actual morning that we're harvesting ice wine they change their mind and only the toughest pickers end up coming out."
Those pickers harvest quickly, in a race against the warmth that comes with even a weak winter sun. It's often foggy, and the fruit is always fragile, sometimes shattering with the lightest touch.
"[It's] a little bit like working in a walk in freezer," Koenig says.
Ice wine, according to Koenig, was born in Austria or Germany in the late 1700s. Whether from boredom, curiosity or desperation, a grower pressed some frozen fruit left from an earlier harvest and discovered that the essence of a grape, with its high sugar content, and therefore higher freezing point, wasn't yet solid and separated naturally from the frozen water crystals. It must have felt to that first ice-wine maker like squeezing sunlight from a stone.
"The first time we began ice wine in 2001, we filled the press and turned it on, and for the first hour, not a drop of juice came out. I was kind of wondering if we were on the right track at all," Koenig says.
He soon realized that instead of pressing the grapes for 45 minutes, as he normally would with white wine, Koenig had to press those gravel-like orbs for nine hours.
"What you end up with is a very diminutive amount of juice coming from the grapes," he says. "Most of the water within the berries still stays in the press, and this incredibly dense sweet nectar drips out of the press and that becomes the juice that we're going to ferment into ice wine."
Ice wine is always a gamble. A winemaker has to surrender a perfectly harvestable portion of a vineyard to the vagaries of winter. Long after the rest of his grapes have been picked, pressed and the juice securely poured into kegs or stainless steel tanks, the shriveling ice wine clusters hang exposed to wind, rain and snow. Koenig covers the vines in netting to keep the birds off, but then can do nothing but cross his fingers and wait for the weather to turn really bad.
"So is it worth it?" I ask him at the end of a long row, relieved to see he has turned toward the shelter of his warehouse.
"Well, it's worth it in that the wine is incredibly unique and beautifully concentrated and intense, and it's something that you can only achieve in difficult conditions," Koenig says. "And when we're pouring ice wine for people the rest of the year in restaurants and at the farmers market and in our tasting room, and seeing their reaction at this incredibly intense product, it's definitely worth it. It's just too hard to do if it wasn't."
Back in the relative warmth of that warehouse, Koenig carefully cuts the hand-dipped seal off a bottle of his 2009 ice wine vintage, then pours an amber, slightly viscous liquid into glasses.
With the first sip, I involuntarily blurt out--like some instant ice wine groupie--"That is fantastic."
Maybe it's just the crazy contrast between the weather outside and what tastes like liquefied summer, but I'm hooked. It reminds me of my first knee-buckling French sauternes, a taste far too complex, too compelling to dismiss as simply sweet.
"Yeah, the nice thing about ice wine is really the intensity of flavor," Koenig says between slow, thoughtful sips. "A lot of people think it's just a sweet wine, but it's so much more than the sweetness. The sugar is definitely part of it, but it's riesling grapes that all of the sudden take on this incredible aroma of apricot and fig and pear and a little bit of orange peel. You just get this incredible array of beautiful flavors."
There is a certain comforting symmetry in the knowledge that a long, dull winter can produce such a sunny, complex drink. And another cool thing about ice wine is that because it's unique to colder climes, wine-award divas like California can't claim it as their own (sip on that Napa Valley). In the northern New World, ice wine is only made in places like Canada, the Finger Lakes of New York and less maritime corners of the Northwest. Southern Idaho, Koenig says, has perfect ice wine terroir.
"If you talk about wine as being very rooted in a region, and the terroir of a wine tasting like the soil or the space, ice wine adds another dimension in that you're adding the temperature and the climate of the region it's from," Koenig says. "When we take our ice wine to competitions outside of Idaho, say to the East Coast or to California, I think it's not hard for people to imagine Idaho's snowy mountains, and really tasting the soils and the climate and all the things that go into making ice wine. They can really picture this coming from a place like Idaho."