Due to the labour-intense and risky production process resulting in relatively small amounts of wine, ice wines are generally quite expensive.
It is believed that the first post-Roman ice wine was made in Franconia in Germany in 1794. Better documentation exist for an ice wine harvest in Dromersheim close to Bingen in Rheinhessen on February 11, 1830. The grapes were of the 1829 vintage. That winter was harsh and some wine-growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine for use as animal fodder. When it was noticed that these grapes yielded very sweet must, they were pressed and an ice wine was produced. It should be noted that sweet wines produced from late harvested grapes were well-established as the most valued German wine style by the early 19th century, following the discovery of Spätlese at Schloss Johannisberg in Rheingau in 1775, and the subsequent introduction of the Auslese designation. These wines would usually be produced from grapes affected by noble rot. Thus, Eiswein is a more recent German wine style than the botrytised wines.
Throughout the 19th century and until 1960, Eiswein harvests were a rare occurrence in Germany. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, including 1858, the first Eiswein at Schloss Johannisberg. There seem to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines during this period, and their production was probably the rare result of freak weather conditions. It was the invention of the pneumatic bladder press which made the production of ice wine practical and led to a substantial increase in the frequency and quantity of production. 1961 saw the production of a number of German ice wines, and the wine increased in popularity in the following years. The production has also been assisted by other technological inventions in the form of electrical lighting driven by portable generators (to assist harvest in the cold hours of morning darkness, before the grapes thaw) and plastic films that are used for "packaging" the vines in order to protect the ripe grapes from being eating by birds when the wine-grower waits for frost.
The pioneer status of the winery Inniskillin in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario has led to their first ice wine, produced in 1984 under the direction of the winery's Austrian-born co-owner Karl Kaiser, often being mentioned as Canada's first ice wine. However, ice wine was produced in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia by German immigrant Walter Hainle already in 1972. This ice wine was the result of an early and unexpected frost and yielded 40 litres of wine, which Hainle originally did not intend to sell, although he did so in 1978. In 1983, Karl Kaiser and Inniskillin's German neighbour Ewald Reif, as well as two wineries with Austrian winemakers located in another part of Ontario, Hillebrand and Pelee Island, all left grapes on their vines in order to try to produce ice wine. Inniskillin and Reif lost their entire crop to hungry birds, while Hillebrand and Pelee Island were able to harvest a minuscule amount of frozen grapes. In 1984, Kaiser used nets to protect his vines and was able to produce Inniskillin's first ice wine. This wine was made from Vidal grapes and was in fact labelled "Eiswein".
After the ice wine production was set on commercial footing, Canadian ice wine quickly became popular with domestic consumers and reviewers, and many other Canadian producers and regions picked up the idea, since the harsh Canadian winters lend themselves well to the large-scale production. The international breakthrough of Canadian ice wine came in 1991, when Inniskillin's 1989 Vidal ice wine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. The Canadian trend towards increased cultivation of Vitis vinifera (European) grape varieties in the 1990s expanded the palette of varieties available to be bitten by frost. By the early 2000s, Canada was established as the largest producer of ice wine in the world.
In Germany in the early 2000s, good ice wine vintages have been more rare than throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many wine-growers cite climate change as a cause, and this received support from a study by the Geisenheim Institute.
The most famous (and expensive) ice wines are German Eiswein and Canadian Icewine (where the name is written as one word), but ice wine is also made in Australia, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and United States, at least in smaller quantity. Eiswein is part of the Prädikatswein quality category in the German wine classification, and Icewine in Canada must follow VQA protocol to be labelled as such. The French language term Vin de glace is part of the wine classification in Luxembourg, but not in France, but is sometimes found on the rare bottles of ice wine produced in Alsace.
In contrast to most other wine-producing regions, Canada, particularly the Niagara Peninsula, consistently undergoes freezing in winter and has become the world's largest ice wine producer. Icewine production in Canada is regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. If sugar in the grapes measures less than 35 brix, then they cannot be made into icewine. These are often downgraded to a lower designation, such as Special Select Late Harvest or Select Late Harvest. Niagara-on-the-Lake's Inniskillin is traditionally considered the leading Icewine producer. It was the first Canadian winery to win a major international award with the prestigious Grand Prix d’Honneur at 1991 Vinexpo in France with their 1989 Icewine. This award put Canadian Icewines on the world stage. Many smaller New World wineries in the Niagara Region have made their presence known with high quality products that have won awards around the world. Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery's 2004 Riesling Icewine was recently acknowledged by Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times (London) and the The Oxford Companion to Wine as one of Canada's 10 best wines. To add to the prestige factor, in November 2006, what has been claimed to be the most expensive bottle of ice wine to date was sold for 30,000 Canadian dollars by Royal DeMaria, a small winery in Beamsville that specializes in making icewine.
In Austria, Germany, and Canada, the grapes must freeze naturally to be called ice wine. In other countries, some winemakers use cryoextraction (that is, mechanical freezing) to simulate the effect of a frost and typically do not leave the grapes to hang for extended periods as is done with natural ice wines. These non-traditional ice wines are sometimes referred to as "icebox wines". An example is Bonny Doon's Vin de Glacière.
The high sugar level in the must leads to a slower-than-normal fermentation. It may take months to complete the fermentation (compared to days or weeks for regular wines) and special strains of yeasts should be used. Because of the lower yield of grape musts and the difficulty of processing, ice wines are significantly more expensive than table wines. They are often sold in half-bottle volume (375 ml) or the even smaller 200ml bottle. New World wineries in particular sometimes bottle 200 ml and 50 ml gift packages.
The minimum must weight requirements for ice wine is as follows, in the measures used in the respective country:
Of the Canadian production of Icewine, shipments to the US accounted for 8 million worth of wine in 2005.
Typical grapes used for ice wine production are Riesling, considered to be the most noble variety by German winemakers; Vidal, highly popular in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada; and, interestingly, the red grape Cabernet Franc. Many vintners, especially from the New World, are experimenting with making ice wine from other varieties: whites such as Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Ehrenfelser; or reds such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, and even Cabernet Sauvignon. Pillitteri Estates Winery from the Niagara-on-the-Lake region of Ontario recently claimed to be the first winery in the world producing Shiraz (Syrah) ice wine.
Ice wines from white varieties tend to be pale yellow or light gold in color when they are young and can maderise (acquiring a deep amber-golden color) as they age. The red varieties tend to have a light burgundy or even pink color like that of rosé wines.
Some vintners in Canada have taken a step forward in experimenting with sparkling ice wine. Sparkling ice wines have texture similar to other sparkling wines, such as champagne or Asti, but with fuller body, and a significantly higher sugar level balanced with high acidity.
Ice wine usually has a slightly lower alcohol content than regular table wine. Some Riesling ice wines from Germany have an alcohol content as low as 6%. Ice wines produced in Canada usually have higher alcohol content, between eight and 13 percent. In most years, ice wines from Canada generally have higher brix degree (must weight) compared to those from Germany. This is largely due to the more consistent winters in Canada. Must with insufficient brix level cannot be made into ice wine, and is thus often sold as "special select late harvest" or "select late harvest" at a fraction of the price that true ice wine commands.
Connoisseurs argue about whether ice wine improves with age or is meant to be drunk young. Those who support aging claim that ice wine's very high sugar level (which is often much higher than that of Sauternes) and high acidity preserve the content for many years after bottling. Those who disagree contend that as ice wine ages it loses its distinctive acidity, fruitiness, aroma, and freshness.