It’s All About Icewine!

Icewine is everywhere in Niagara right now.  Winery boutique shelves are packed with bottles of the luscious nectar that the Canadian wine industry has become world-famous for.  But there’s more than just regular Icewine – there’s Canada’s first biodynamic Icewine (made by Southbrook); there’s sparkling Icewine (made by Inniskillin); there’s sparkling wine with a ‘dosage’ of Icewine (made by Peller); there’s Icewine syrup (available at Hillebrand and Inniskillin); and there’s a range of Icewine bath and beauty products ranging from Icewine body wash to Icewine lipgloss (available at Hillebrand’s boutique).  You’ll also find ideas for pairing food with Icewine – it’s not just a dessert wine – and you’ll hear about ways to make Icewine into a refreshing cocktail.  All of this excitement about Icewine is to celebrate the 16th Annual Niagara Icewine Festival that starts today, January 14th and runs until January 30th (go to www.icewinefestival.com for more information on events).  The 2nd Annual Twenty Valley Winter Wine Fest is also taking place in Jordan Village on January 15th and 16th.

Canada was not the first country to make Icewine.  It is believed that the first Eiswein was made in Germany as early as the 1700s (1794 is accepted as the first reference) when the temperatures suddenly turned cold before the harvest could be brought in.  Austria is also known for making Eiswein. However, it is Canada that has become the world leader in Icewine production.

According to John Schreiner, in his book “Icewine – The Complete Story”, the first commercial Icewine to be made in Canada was in 1973 by Walter Heinle in BC’s Okanagan Valley.  The first wineries to successfully make commercial Icewine in Ontario were Hillebrand and Pelee Island Winery in 1983.  Other wineries, such as Inniskillin and Reif, had attempted Icewine that same year, but the grapes weren’t netted and were subsequently devoured by the birds. Pelee Island did have the foresight to net the vines; however, not only did the nets protect at least some of the grapes, they also trapped birds.  The nets were soon taken down by conservation officials, but enough grapes had been saved to make a small amount of Icewine.

Making Icewine

Our climate, with its warm summers to ripen the grapes fully, and cold, but not too cold winters, provides almost perfect conditions for the production of Icewine, consistently, every year.  I’ve heard it quoted that Canada produces 90% of the world’s Icewine – ‘real’ Icewine that is.

Speaking of ‘real’ Icewine, Ontario’s VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) strictly regulates the production of Icewine in Ontario.  You can always tell if you are purchasing a true Ontario Icewine if it is spelled Icewine, not Ice Wine or any other variation, and if there is the VQA logo somewhere on the bottle.  VQA regulations control the grape varieties used, harvest procedures, winemaking, and the wines must go through testing before they are certified.  The grapes that will be used for Icewine must be registered with VQA in November.

The grapes will be netted to protect them from the ravenous birds that can clean out a vineyard in a matter of hours, and the grapes are left to hang on the vine.  During this time the grapes will dehydrate and the juice will become more concentrated.  Once a sustained temperature of -8°C is attained the grapes will freeze and harvesting can begin.  Some winemakers like to wait until -10 or -12°C.  The frozen, almost raisin-like berries will now have attained sugar levels of between 35 and 39° Brix.  Icewine grapes are generally picked in the darkness of the very early morning hours, before the sun rises and the frozen grapes start to melt.

The water in the frozen grapes is now ice so when they are pressed only about 1 drop of thick, sweet nectar is extracted form each grape.  Icewine grapes only yield about 15% of the juice that would be expected for table wine.  That is, if 10 bottles of table wine can be made, only about 1 and a half bottles of Icewine can be made from the same amount of grapes – one of the reasons why Icewine is more expensive.

The Taste of Icewine

Icewine is very sweet, but the naturally high acidity in these wines balances the sugar, and the wine should flow harmoniously over the palate.  Icewine should never be cloying.  The 3 most common grapes used for Icewine are Vidal, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc; however, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, among others, are also occasionally used.

Vidal: Lots of apricot, peach, and pineapple flavours with a honeyed note.

Riesling: Minerals, orange peel and other citrus fruit dominate, with a refreshing high acidity.

Cabernet Franc: A pretty pink colour with red berry flavours, such as strawberry, cherry, and raspberry.  I often detect a strawberry jam or strawberry/rhubarb pie character.

Gewurztraminer: Lychee, roses, and spice aromas leap out.

Icewine can be magical when paired with fruit-based desserts and Cabernet Franc Icewine is great with chocolate (just be sure the wine is at least as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert), but it can also be paired with some savoury dishes as well.  Foie gras, pate, blue cheese and other strong cheeses, seared scallops, curry, oysters, and even onion soup with Gruyere cheese can be paired with Icewine.  Inniskillin and Peller have some great recipes on their websites that can be enjoyed with a small glass of Icewine (1 to 2 ounces of Icewine per serving is all you need.)

Enjoy a glass or two of Icewine this January!

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