While a week of minus 10° C (and colder) temperatures might send a chill up the spine of many Ontarians, in the vineyards of Niagara it was a blessing that came just in the nick of time. After a relatively warm winter, temperatures finally plunged in late January, enough to allow wineries in Ontario to harvest the liquid gold that is one of Canada’s most unique products.
Icewine, which can fetch up to hundreds of dollars for a single 375 ml bottle, has become a luxury wine sought after by wine lovers worldwide.
The sweet nectar made from frozen grapes is enjoying renewed popularity. Preliminary registrations for icewine and late harvest grapes show 5,500 tonnes of grapes were netted for the 2012 season. A substantial increase from last year’s 3,650 tonnes and production is slowly pushing towards levels not seen since 2007, when a record of nearly 7,000 tonnes was netted.
The ritual of picking grapes in the freezing cold of winter then crushing the hard fruit into a luxurious and magical drink wasn’t invented in Canada, but Canadians have perfected the art of making and marketing icewine to the rest of the world.
This history of icewine dates back to 1794 when accidentally discovered by German farmers trying to save their grape harvest after a sudden frost. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and perceptive Ontario vintners recognized the cold winters could provide the perfect conditions for producing exceptional icewine.
In 1991, Inniskillin entered its 1989 Vidal Icewine at Vinexpo in Bordeaux. It won the Grand Prix d’Honneur and the world’s attention. Since that time, Ontario’s icewines have been unrivalled on the world stage. Year after year, it brings home gold medals and critical acclaim from the most prestigious international competitions.
Icewine helped put Canada on the world wine map and launched an industry that remains the most lucrative wine export in this country.
Suffering global economies have meant lean years for the expensive luxury wines, and wineries find themselves with a surplus from the 2006 to 2008 seasons. Harvests up to 2012 were tiny, said Inniskillin winemaker, Bruce Nicholson, “There were some lean years with that whole economy thing,” Nicholson said, “But demand is back for icewine with interest from China, the U.S. and domestically.” Inniskillin is the world’s most renowned icewine producer and exports to over 70 countries.
Nicholson said it doesn’t really matter when he picks his icewine grapes but as time passes it starts wearing on staff. “It’s good that we have it off the vines. It’s good we’re done. You get antsy with picking hanging over your head; it’s that anticipation, the waiting that gets to you.”
Inniskillin makes icewine from three core varietals: Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc and also makes a delicious Sparkling Vidal Icewine.
The key to making great icewine, according to Nicholson, is in the acidity, which balances the high sugar content and makes the wine feel less cloying on the palate. “You have to have the acid or it’s like standing up a skeleton, it just doesn’t work,” he said. He loves working with Riesling icewine because it’s “so pristine and elegant and has that natural acidity and lemon-lime flavours” but he’s also growing fonder of Cabernet Franc with those “strawberry and cream” flavours.
Icewine is renowned for its intense flavours, rich bouquet and unsurpassed smoothness. It is produced from grapes that have been left on the vine after the fall harvest. As soon as there is a sustained temperature of minus 8°C or colder, vintners are allowed, according to VQA rules, to harvest their icewine grapes. It varies from year to year when that occurs; as early as December or as late as March. The frozen grapes are taken from the vine and pressed immediately releasing a thick, rich, yellow-gold liquid, highly concentrated in natural sugars and acidity.
In some regions of the world shortcuts are taken, such as putting late harvest grapes in freezers. Production in Ontario is monitored by a VQA-appointed agent who will stop a harvest once the temperature rises above minus 8°C.
The average sugar level of the juice used must reach at least 35 Brix (Brix is the measurement of sugar content in a liquid) and both alcohol and residual sugar in the finished wine must result exclusively from the natural sugar of the grapes.
The best icewines are produced when summers are hot and the winters cold and sharp. Of all the wine-producing regions in the world, only Ontario has a winter climate sufficiently cold enough to ensure an icewine crop in most years. Icewine is currently produced by 60 wineries in Ontario.
It takes about 3.5 kilograms of Riesling grapes or three kilograms of Vidal grapes to produce one 375-millilitre bottle of icewine. The same amount of grapes would produce six to seven times as much table wine. When you consider these factors, a price of $50 to $100 per bottle is reasonable.
Icewine is often enjoyed with desserts or as a dessert on its own. But it can also make a perfect complement for rich savoury foods such as foie gras or aged blue cheeses. Icewine is also used as a “dosage” for sparkling wine and as a flavourful addition to cocktails.
Almost every winery in Niagara makes some sort of icewine. Among the top producers are Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Stratus, Henry of Pelham, Pillitteri, Chateau des Charmes, Tawse, Reif, Pondview and Peller Estates.
Inniskillin Sparkling Icewine Vidal 2011 ($80 for 375 ml) — This special bottling of sparkling Vidal icewine has quickly become a favourite of mine, and a style I hope catches on with every icewine producer in Niagara. It starts with rousing, invigorating aromatics of sweet apricot, peach tart and exotic tropical fruits. The bubbles from this Charmat method sparkler dance nimbly in the glass and explode on the palate with alluring sweetness and playful effervescence. The flavours are gorgeous with peach compote, orange peel, citrus, mango, apricot and honeycomb all delivered on a racy spine of acidity. Herein lies the future of icewine. Wow!
Stratus Riesling Icewine 2008 ($40 for 200 ml) — Penetrating aromas of sweet honey, lime, lemon, ripe apples, bees wax, mineral and hints of compoted tropical fruits. It’s built on a backbone of racy acidity that shows on the palate, lifting the concentration of citrus flavours and leading to a long, vibrant finish.
Tawse Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2011 ($35 for 200 ml) — An exciting nose of strawberry compote, cherry-raspberry accents and touches of jammy black fruits that are persistent and inviting. It explodes on the palate with supersweet and thick red fruits balanced by racy acidity all delivered on a long, clean finish. A nice subtle nutty taste is just starting to emerge. Hold some for the cellar, if you can.
Vineland Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2011 ($42 for 375 ml) — The aromas are thick and rich with jammy raspberry, black cherry, currants and just a whiff of blueberry chiming in. It’s viscous and rich on the palate with bold and rich red fruits that coat the mouth. It has decent acidity that provides balance on the finish. Altogether, a highly extracted, sweet icewine that deserves some love in the cellar.
Rick VanSickle is the publisher of www.WinesInNiagara.com. Follow him on Twitter @rickwine