Ice Wine: Wisconsin’s Frozen Asset

Ice Wine: Wisconsin’s Frozen Asset
To make authentic ice wine, the grapes must freeze completely whille still on the vine.

It was the coldest day in the history of the world. You remember that Monday in January. “Dangerously cold,” they called it. That was the day we interviewed Wollersheim Winery co-owner and winemaker Philippe Coquard about, appropriately enough, ice wine.

What is equally appropriate is that when it comes to Wisconsin products, ice wine is about as genuine an article as we have to offer. “I do a lot of public speaking throughout the Midwest,” says Coquard, “and I ask all the other wineries ‘why are you not making ice wine?’ because we are one [region] in the nation … where ice wine can easily be done.”

Some trace the history of ice wine—a dessert wine made from grapes that froze while still on the vine—to Roman times, the first century AD, but eventually Germany became the largest and most-valued producer. However with global warming, Germany has picked ice wine grapes just once in the last ten years. “So now,” says Coquard, “the big player in ice wine is Canada, [and it’s] a huge, huge business.”

As big a player as Canada is, there’s plenty of room for more ice wine, and Coquard plans to help fill the void. An added attraction of Wollersheim’s ice wine is the grape variety from which it is made was discovered right here in Wisconsin.

“St. Pepin, the grape we are using for the ice wine, was invented by Elmer Swenson, a farmer in Osceola, Wisconsin,” one of at least four grape varieties Swenson is credited with discovering, Coquard tells us. “So we always proudly say we are using native Wisconsin grapes, grown on Wisconsin soil made here into ice wine.”

Coquard says ice wine doesn’t require the same wine-making care as other wines. “The beauty of it is nature takes care of it. It doesn’t matter what you do.” What does matter—very much—to Coquard, is respect for ice wine-making law. “The law is, frozen on the vine and pressed frozen. My biggest pet peeve is ice wines that are not legal or ethical, where the grapes are artificially frozen, picked in September and artificially frozen in a conventional freezer, and when they have time they take the grapes out, press them and make believe it is ice wine.” Others he says may freeze the juice or the wine, or use reverse osmosis to remove the water and concentrate artificially. “That is insulting to the rest of us,” says Coquard, “who are picking grapes at nine degrees Fahrenheit and freezing our behinds.”

For a number of years in the late ’90s, Coquard and his brother-in-law produced a wine they refused to call ice wine. “It was almost frozen,” he says. “It was cold but never to the point of frozen on the vine and in respect of the law we called it ‘very late harvest.’ I think in 2004 we went all the way and made a true ice wine where we picked it solid frozen on the vines.”

Ice wine starts with a sugar concentration of thirty-five percent before fermentation, and has a relatively low alcohol content between ten and eleven percent. That unadulterated sweetness, says Coquard, is the beauty of the wine. “Think of a blend of honey and maple syrup,” he says. “You don’t taste the alcohol.”

A half bottle can command $40 up to $100, and Coquard says it’s worth every penny. “It’s a specialty … a delicacy; it is so unique. It’s nectar of the vine, it’s honey of the grape vine, you know. It’s that special.”

And he very much wants more people to know how special. “The more we can educate people,” he tells us, “the more we can educate about authentically made ice wine from any wineries in Wisconsin, the better it is.” The wine, he says, “tastes pretty awesome.” To which we would add: genuinely awesome.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.