Winter crush: ice wine is Canada’s sweet sipper

Ice wine grapes | photo by Denis Rivard
Making icewine is a sweet struggle

The parallels between wine-making and high-stakes betting might not seem obvious at first. When it comes to harvesting grapes for icewine, though, wagering on a narrow window of weather, and getting the frozen fruit off the vines and into the press, requires plenty of skill and serendipity.

There’s no question that chance played a role in the birth of eiswein near Würzburg, Germany, in 1794. An early-November cold snap caused Riesling grapes to freeze on the vine and, in an effort to salvage the precious fruit, it was harvested and pressed while frozen.

From British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula

That leap of faith was replicated in Canada almost 200 years later, when German immigrant Walter Hainle produced North America’s first commercially viable icewine at his eponymous estate winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, which sits at the 49th parallel north—the same latitude as Würzburg. The grapes were harvested on November 8, 1978, and Canada’s lucrative industry took root.

In Ontario’s Niagara region, which today lays claim to about three-quarters of Canada’s icewine production, Karl Kaiser, Inniskillin Wines’ co-founder and co-author of “Icewine: Extreme Winemaking,” with Donald Ziraldo, was betting on producing a 1983 vintage when he reserved some vines for icewine. He gambled and lost: the majority of his grapes were gobbled up by birds. The Austrian immigrant later foiled his feathered foes by protecting his crop with nets, and Inniskillin’s Vidal icewines soon garnered Ontario—and Canada—international recognition as a wine-producing region.

Like port and sherry, icewine falls into the dessert wine category, though the former are fortified wines. Partway through the fermentation process, those wines are amped up with the addition of brandy (or another neutral spirit), which halts the fermentation process, leaving the grapes’ natural sugars behind.

Hang time: icewine on the vine

In contrast, icewine’s alcohol comes only from the grapes’ natural sugars that become even more concentrated the longer the fruit hangs on the vine. The grapes must endure predators, mould, and freeze-thaw weather cycles, and then winemaking gets even more extreme. In Ontario and British Columbia, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), of which Ziraldo was a founder, sets strict standards for what constitutes an icewine, similar to Europe’s various “appellation of origin” requirements.

Grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine and cannot be harvested until the temperature dips to at least –8°C. Even then, harvesting (often done by hand) has to happen fast. If the temperature rises, the ice in the grapes will thaw and dilute the concentrated juice, and if it gets too cold, vines can become damaged. Colder temperatures further reduce the yield of juice, which is already just five to 10 per cent liquid compared to a regular wine pressing, plus it raises the juice’s sweetness level, making it more difficult to ferment the juice.

Icewine alone is an ideal dessert—the concentrated sugars are balanced with the high levels of acidity that are characteristic of cool-climate viticulture, ultimately leading to a complexity of flavours (and texture) unmatched by dessert wines.

There’s no question: producing icewine is a high-risk venture, a labour of love, and extreme oenology. But when art and alchemy align, the result can be only one thing: a sure bet. Φ

Wine word: brix 

  • Brix is the measure of sugar in wine or juice used  in North America.
  • One degree brix equals 18 g natural sugar per litre.
  • Icewine produced in B.C. and Ontario to VQA standards must be 35° brix or more.

Sweet sippers: tasting notes

  • Fruity: red berries, citrus, melon, apricots
  • Floral: orange blossoms, rose petals
  • Spicy: cinnamon, clove, vanilla
  • Nutty: hazelnut, walnut, pecan
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