Freeze & Thaw Turns Apples into Eiswein

Take a sip of Still River Winery’s Apfel Eis wine and find yourself transported to an apple orchard on a crisp fall day. That magical effect has been achieved, if awards and accolades are any testament, by the Holtzman family of Harvard.

Wade and Margot Holtzman, with help from their son Leif, have made the leap from conception to perfection with their unique version of apple ice wine, which they produce at their winery here in Harvard.

As previously reported in the Press ( “Business Brief: A winery is born in Harvard,” June 2009), the Holtzman family visited Quebec a few years ago and happened to taste an ice wine made from apples. Traditional ice wine, also known as eiswein, is made from grapes that have remained on the vine past the first frost. When the grapes freeze, the frozen water crystals separate out, resulting in a juice that contains more sugar, acid, and flavor than regular wine.

If the painstakingly complex, time-consuming process of fermenting this concentrated grape “must” is done properly, it produces a deliciously sweet, if expensive, wine.

Eiswein made from apples was created by a French winemaker who had emigrated to Quebec. He reasoned that the apple was more “at home” than was the grape on Canadian soil, and would, therefore, result in a better product. He was correct.

Upon tasting the Canadian apple ice wine, the Holtzmans had a similar epiphany. If apples that were grown in Canada could produce a pleasing ice wine, didn’t it stand to reason that apples from the heart of apple country in central Massachusetts—which happens to have the most ideal soil, climate, and hours of sunlight to grow delicious apples—would produce a remarkably better one? They returned home determined to give it a try.

After researching the methodologies for creating ice wine and obtaining raw pressed apples from local cider producers, the Holtzmans produced a small batch to try with friends. An enthusiastic response over the taste and quality of the wine convinced the Holtzman family they were on to something that deserved serious pursuit.

The challenge was to create a process to separate the water crystals from the cider before it began fermentation. They settled on a separation process that reduces five gallons of cider to one gallon. The five-gallon glass containers (called carboys) are a far cry from the 250-gallon tanks used by commercial producers, and the glass allows one to see what’s going on inside the bottle.

“We concentrate by freezing,” said Margot Holtzman. “Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, each time removing the clear ice, which is water.” When asked about the difference between the frozen juice and frozen water, she explained that it’s a property of physics that when the juice is thawing the clear ice (water) stays frozen longer than the juice, so they can just physically take it out. Then the cider goes into the carboys, where it gets inoculated with the yeast, which acts on the natural sugars to create alcohol.

“Any other sweet wine, such as a Riesling, has sugar added to it,” she said. “We don’t need to do that, because it’s so concentrated.”

Holtzman added that it is not even legal to add sugar to wines labeled as ice wines.

After the fermentation is on its way, the carboys go into a cold room for a long slow fermentation, which preserves the natural flavors. When this step is complete, 10 carboys at a time are combined to create a consistent product, as each one individually is a living thing and therefore a little different.

Fermentation itself takes place over months, at very cold temperatures, to preserve delicate flavors and aromas that would disappear if fermentation occurred more quickly at warmer temperatures

The Holtzmans found that using a special yeast that can withstand very cold temperatures allowed them to ferment the wine over long periods in small batches, an important aspect of not having to add sugar (which is typically added to most wines and ciders made from apples) either before or after fermentation.

After cold fermentation is complete, each carboy is taken out to “sit on its lees (sediment) for a few weeks.” Sulfites are added to stop the fermentation, but the amount is only a fraction of what is normally added to a fruit wine.

The small size of the carboys allows for careful transferring to a tank (leaving most of the sediment in the containers). From there the wine goes through a series of “plate filters,” (sheets of cellulose) which filter out the finer particles. First the wine passes through 15 sheets of large- to medium-grade filters, then again through 15 sheets of medium to fine filters. This process is called “fining,” and in a large-scale commercial production, it would be done using a clay-like substance called bentonite to “scrub” the wine and only the large particles would be filtered out.

Here the Holtzmans have added another layer of filtering for a very pure product; just before bottling, the wine goes through an “ultra-sterile cartridge.” Margot Holtzman explained that the pores in this cartridge are “.2 microns, so no bacteria can get through; no stray yeast cell can get through.”

The reason for this extra precaution is so they can use a very small amount of sulfites and not worry that any yeast will remain to act on the sugars, which would create a much higher percentage of alcohol.

In September 2008, the Holtzmans took their creation to the Newport Wine Festival, where they received a very good reception, giving them the confidence to expand their production and look for retailers in Massachusetts while obtaining a license to distribute nationally. Since then, Apfel Eis has received several prestigious national and international awards, which are listed on their website,

When the Press first spoke with the Holtzmans, their operation was very small. There was a single cold room for fermentation, the size of a closet, and from that they were producing about 400 cases a year. Since then they have expanded their production space to accommodate two large cold rooms and several large freezers; they have quadrupled their production, and have one full-time employee outside the family.

“This is it,” said Margot Holtzman. “This is as big as we want to get; any bigger and it will just start to get like a factory, and we don’t want to do that.”

When asked if there was any interest in selling globally, she said they do get inquiries, but they don’t want the hassle of the licensing and the bureaucracy.

Each batch of Apfel Eis is made from a blend of local varietal apples, and over 80 apples go into the making of each bottle. And now the Holtzmans have created a sparkler, from the same wine.

Leif had requested the sparkler for his wedding; feedback was again positive, and now they are adding it to the product line.

“The process of carbonation does make it a bit drier,” Margot said.

Over 400 retailers now sell Apfel Eis. Harvard resident Steve Pope, wine consultant at Lower Falls Wine Company in Newton, said, “We sold quite a bit of the Apfel Eis at Thanksgiving and got great feedback. It’s local, it’s different, and it’s delicious without being too sweet. I did think it showed better nicely chilled. I had some that had warmed up a little and it didn’t have quite the pop of flavor.”

The Holtzman family is clearly proud of their enormously successful creation and have reached the level of output where they are comfortable. Wade continues to run his antique furniture repair business, and Margot still teaches.

When asked about the dynamics of running a business as a family, Margot said, “Running our business as a family is just one more bond that keeps us close, particularly for the past year and a half, when Leif has been in California. We all have very different strengths and respect these in each other. Wade is totally the hands-on guy, Leif knows about business strategy, and I do well dealing with customers.”

Despite the amount of work involved, “if we keep it at this size, it will still be fun,” said Margot, rolling her eyes just a bit.