Could warmer winters spell the end of Germany’s traditional eiswein?

By Peter Zschunke, dpa

Eiswein, a special German dessert wine, is made from grapes that freeze on the vine. Winemakers must risk not harvesting their grapes but leaving them and hoping that temperatures fall sufficiently. It is a tough bet, even at the best of times.

Thanks to global warming, a speciality German dessert wine may have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

In 2019, only one German state, Baden-Wuerttemberg, was able to produce eiswein, according to Ernst Buescher, from the German Wine Institute in Bodenheim. For the 12 others, it just didn’t get cold enough.

Eiswein, literally “ice wine” is made by picking grapes while they’re are frozen, crushing them while they are still icy and fermenting the concentrated, freezing-cold sugary extract to produce a dessert wine.

The idea is that when the grapes are frozen, the liquid is concentrated – doubly so, because the grapes have been left hanging on the vine until well after the normal harvest, and have shrivelled.

The lower the temperature during the harvest, the higher the concentration of sugar, acidity and fruit substance in the grapes.

Temperatures in Korb, in the Rems valley, hit minus eight-and-a-half degrees Celsius, below the threshold of minus seven degrees Celsius, and winemaker Jens Zimmerle thereupon handed in his harvest declaration for some 100 litres of eiswein to a state wine institute.

The other winemakers, however, probably saw it coming: In Rhineland-Palatinate, only 42 hectares were registered in 2019 by 50 winemakers for a possible eiswein harvest.

For those businesses, the lack of frost means a total loss.

In comparison, in 2018, about 680 winemakers had registered for a possible eiswein harvest, with a total area of 584 hectares. In the 2018-19 season, eight wine-growing regions were able to harvest.

The conditions for eiswein production have not been optimal in recent years, according to the German Wine Institute. Only seven producers nationwide were able to harvest eiswein in 2017, the institute says.

The years 2012 and 2015 were especially good eiswein years, but good luck finding anything from the year 2014.

But winter isn’t the only season giving winemakers trouble: On the other side, grapes are ripening earlier nowadays, due to higher summer temperatures.

“As a result, the amount of time that grapes must remain in a healthy condition until a possible eiswein harvest is growing longer,” explains the wine institute.

In years with low yields, such as 2019, many producers also don’t want to run the risk of losing grapes in case the cold weather never comes. “It reduces the risk of leaving grapes hanging for a possible frost attack,” says Markus Heil, the head of the viticulture department for the Rheinland-Palatinate’s agricultural cabinet.

He says the mild winter of 2018 had left many winemakers less than hopeful for the next winter to be cold enough for eiswein.

The past winter was by far the warmest ever recorded in Europe, according to EU climate researchers. Between December 2019 and February 2020, temperatures were 3.4 degrees Celsius above average temperatures between 1981 and 2010, and 1.4 degrees warmer than the warmest winter so far, in 2015-16.

“If warm winters because more common in coming years, eiswein from German wine regions will soon become an even more precious rarity than it already is,” says Buescher.

Eiswein is often considered a winemaker’s flagship product and is a lucrative export to countries such as Japan, China, the Scandinavian nations and the United States.

With only 100 litres in this year’s vintage, fans of eiswein will certainly have trouble getting their hands on a bottle.

And who knows how many more harvests there may be until the year that the eiswein harvest finally fails across Germany?

For those who may never get to try eiswein, or perhaps will no longer be able to obtain it, perhaps it is time to get used to beerenauslese – a similarly sweet alternative that pairs well with creamy desserts and is harvested late in the season.

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