Wine for the Winter

Icewine is Canada’s Liquid Gold


With an output of over 1.2 million litres a year, Canada is by far the world’s largest producer of icewine or “liquid gold” as it is often called. That is a considerable feat, given that icewine originated in Europe a long time ago.
While some people believe icewine dates back to Roman times, it reappeared, quite by accident, in Franconia, Germany, in 1794. After a frost hit unexpectedly, farmers nevertheless used the grapes to make wine. The result was a wonderfully sweet liquid, unlike anything they had tasted, and it came to be known as eiswein. By the early 19th Century sweet wines made from late harvested grapes had clearly taken their place as the most valued German wine style as indicated by the introduction of the Auslese (which literally means “select harvest”) designation. Throughout the 19th century, eiswein harvests were particularly rare because the conditions needed to produce eiswein were seldom attained. 
Along with counterculture, the 1960s brought much innovation. Pneumatic bladder presses, portable generators, and plastic film to cover and protect grapes, all assisted in the viability of the production of icewine.  In 1961, numerous German eiswines were produced and in turn, the wine increased in popularity in the following years. 
In 1972, an early frost hit British Columbia’s young wine industry. Familiar with the tradition of eiswein production, Walter Hainle (Hainle Vineyards), a German immigrant, and his son Tilman produced 40 litres of icewine from the frozen grapes. Six years later Tilman went on to release Canada’s first commercial icewine. In 1983, Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo of Inniskillin, Ewald Reif of Reif Winery, Walter Strehn of Pelee Island Winery, and Dr. Joseph Pohorly and Peter Gamble of Hillebrand Estates all set aside grapes with the intention of making icewine. Inniskillin and Reif both lost their entire crop to ravenous birds, while Hillebrand and Pelee were able to produce tiny amounts. The following year, Kaiser used nets to protect the grapes and was able to produce Inniskillin’s first icewine from Vidal wine grapes. While icewine quickly grew in domestic popularity, the truly defining moment came in 1991, when Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal icewine won the world’s most prestigious wine award: the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. By the early 2000s, Canada had established itself as the top producer of one of the rarest wine styles in the world. 
While eiswine continues to be made in Europe, Canada is the only region where the climatic conditions are suitable for the production of icewine every year. Icewine is made by allowing the grapes to remain on the vine until freezing occurs. So in countries where these wines are produced, winemakers ultimately have two harvests: one for table wine and one for icewine. While the health of the berry at table wine harvest is important, it is not indicative of the ultimate quality of the future icewine. While the grapes continue to hang they are susceptible to animals and rot. When conditions are right, the grapes desiccate over the cold fall months and the numerous cycles of freeze and thaw contribute to the overall profile of the final wine. In Canada, icewine cannot be harvested until the temperature drops to  -8 degrees C, the point at which all of the berries will freeze. When this happens the water in the berries separates from the super concentrated sugar juice, also known as must. Because this juice is so high in sugar it is denser than the water, and thus freezes at a lower temperature. This means that when the icewine juice is pressed away from the frozen ice in the berry, the juice is much higher in sugar. Moreover, the freeze/thaw cycles that occur before the critical temperature is achieved allow for the further development of flavours. To ensure that no dilution occurs, the berries are often harvested in the cool of night. At Pilliteri Estates Winery, the winemaker Alexsander Kolundzic goes a step further and ensures that -8 degrees C is maintained for a long enough time to ensure that maximum freezing, flavour development and concentration are achieved. As lab manager, Renee Lefebvre at Pilliteri Estates Winery points out, “While great wine begins in the vineyard, it is essential that we maintain the potential of the grapes by processing them properly. There is no point in investing a great deal of resources just to dilute this liquid gold during processing.” Inniskillin pioneer Donald Ziraldo, who is often credited with the success of icewine, does not harvest his grapes until -10 degrees C to ensure optimal flavours have been achieved. Icewine must not only be picked at a lower temperature than their European counterparts, but the sugar concentration of the grape must, also has to be higher. 
But these rigorous standards alone are not what make Canadian icewine so unique. Where Eiswein is predominantly made from Riesling, icewine can be made from any vitis vinifera variety as well as the hybrid Vidal Blanc. Icewine is currently being made from both red and white varietals. Regardless of the grape variety used, icewine is a sweet, highly concentrated wine, with wonderful acidity to balance its sweetness, making it a perfect aperitif to pair with cheeses or a dessert in itself. Its colour depends on the variety used, but can range from pale yellow to deep gold for the white varietals and a pale amber to a deep garnet for the reds. Depending on both the variety and the climate, the flavours range across the spectrum. For instance, Vidal is famous for honeyed peach and apricot flavours but can also present more tropical flavours such as mango and passion fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, tends to show bright cherry, confectioned raspberries, and strawberry jam notes. Regardless of the varietal, the icewine expression appears to be a concentration of the dominant flavours. 
Canada’s rigorous standards and ideal climatic conditions together underlie this country’s position as the world leader in icewine production. So when you’re thinking of an aperitif or dessert wine to kick off 2015, why not celebrate the wonders of winter with a bottle of Canadian icewine? 

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