WHEN THEY WOKE UP, it was winter.

When they had gone to sleep the night before, it was merely fall — a nippy fall, but not yet cold enough to kiss the fields in white.

In theory, that frost should have been a disaster, blasting the fields of grapes just as the fruit was reaching its juiciest, fullest prime. But this frost was a godsend; the vintners had prayed for it, hoped for it, even timed their late-season harvest for it. So, the vintners and their laborers leapt out of bed (bare feet on thick carpets for the vintner and his family, straw for the peasants), and hastily pulled on their stockings and boots and trudged out over the crunchy grass to the vines.

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Time was of the essence now because the snappy touch of Jack Frost had turned the heavy, sweet clusters of their crop into glittering globules pregnant with grape juice. The frost had come at the ideal moment, and the old German vintner could now, if he were lucky, reap a harvest worth far more than the ordinary yield of table wine and known as Eiswein, or, as the English call it, ice wine.

It was said the Romans first produced ice wine in Italy, but the German vintner found it hard to believe Italy ever got cold enough to freeze the grapes. (Maybe in the north, near the Alps — he didn’t know; he’d never left the county he was born in, much less gone to Italy.) Other Romans (and/or their client Germanic tribes) had planted fields of grapes farther north near the Rhine, where the frosts came with more regularity, so the vintner also found it hard to believe it took until the mid-1800s (which, for our vintner, was only half a century ago) for Germans to rediscover the phenomenon that freezing grapes on the vine could yield a sweeter, more acidic dessert wine that, due to its quality and rarity, could also make a man’s fortune in a single vintage.

If they got their timing right, that is. As in all matters ice-related, time is everything in the production of Eiswein. The grapes must be frozen on the vine, ideally at peak ripeness. So the winter cold snap has to arrive before the grapes rot in place. If that miracle occurs, the grapes must be crushed while frozen (within just hours of harvest). The balance between crystalline and ruined is tenuous as glass. The perfect conditions are rare, and vintages of Eiswein even rarer, hence their value.

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The first German Eiswein harvest probably had been an accident, an attempt to make the best of a bad situation that turned into a bonanza. On the vine, the grapes’ tender flesh is held in tenuous stasis by the very ice that bursts their cell walls. Once they are pulled off to be crushed, they will begin to melt, so the vintner could perhaps be forgiven for barking, “Schnell! Schnell!” to speed the large troop of hearty Rhinish peasants he’d hired to harvest the vines. He had been paying them all week to hang around his farm doing almost nothing, needing as many hands as possible to harvest the grapes within a few hours, a gamble that would, that year, actually pay off for him.

The reward would be sweet, complicated, heady, a gift from the gods of winter to be served with the rich marzipan confectionary desserts of German Christmas. In some distant future, an unthinkably vast land to the west known as Canada would take over as the primary producer of ice wine, due to the sheer mass of arable land, but wee Germany would still remain number two. 

In this future, in a country called America, a wine-producing state called Washington also would be ideally placed to produce ice wines in abundance, with names such as Kiona Vineyards and Chateau Ste. Michelle. They still would be expensive, but it’s a small price to pay for a glass of sweet serendipity.