Menus & Entertaining

Icewine: Intensely sweet and indulgent

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Menus & Entertaining

Icewine: Intensely sweet and indulgent

This sweet dessert wine, traditionally made with white grapes, is now also made with red varieties, each with its own unique character.

The grapes stay on the vine through autumn and dry into raisins. As winter arrives, the freeze-thaw cycle further dehydrates them, intensifying the sugar, acids and other components. The flavour of the juice is highly concentrated, making a complex wine with deep, rich nuances.

Canada has made icewine into an international star. We've trademarked the term, and our Vintners Quality Alliance has created the most stringent regulations in the world for its production: it must be naturally produced (no artificial freezing); it must have a minimum Brix (sugar content) of 35 degrees; the alcohol must come from the grapes' natural sugars; and the harvest must not start before Nov. 15.

Why the exorbitant price tag and small bottle? When pressed, the frozen grapes produce miniscule amounts of juice. The yield is less than one-quarter of what would be produced by unfrozen grapes.

10 things you should know about icewine:
1. Icewine was discovered accidently in Franconia, Germany, in 1794. Vintners pressed frozen grapes they'd left on the vines for winter animal fodder and found that the resulting wine had a very high level of sugar. Late-harvest sweet wines were already prized in Germany, so by the 1800s, Eiswein was being made intentionally in the Rheingau region.

2. Icewine is made in Canada, Germany, Australia, Austria, New Zealand, Israel and California. Those made using freezers are often called "icebox wines."

3. The first Canadian commercial icewine was made in 1978 by Hainle Vineyards in British Columbia. Ontario followed in 1984, when Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin produced his first batch, using nets to protect the sweet grapes from hungry foraging critters (yet another reason for the high cost).

4. The Canadian harvest only happens in winter, once temperatures have fallen below –8ºC, and lasts for just two or three consecutive nights. The grapes are frantically hand-picked, at night or in early morning, then pressed while still frozen in an unheated building.

5. White Vidal and Riesling are the most common icewine grapes in Canada, but red Cabernet Franc is increasingly popular. Syrah/ Shiraz and Gewurztraminer are up-and-comers.

6. Icewine fermentation is long (one to three months). Some are then aged in barrels, according to the winery's style.

7. Sparkling icewines exist, too. They are quite full-bodied and, not surprisingly, sweet.

8. In June 1991, Inniskillin won the Grand Prix trophy in Bordeaux, France, for its 1989 Vidal icewine. This put Canada on the world wine map and inspired other vintners. Now icewine is made by more than 50 wineries in Ontario, 30 in British Columbia, and a few in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

9. Icewines are highly sought after in the Far East, where a bottle can fetch up to three times the price it would here.

10.
Young icewines have vibrant fruit and acidity. But they also age well, evolving into wines with more complex, subtler flavours.

How to serve icewine:
Stemware:
Although traditionally served in smaller glasses, icewine benefits from a regular white wine glass, which showcases all of its wonderful aromas.

Temperature: 10 to 12°C. Don’t overchill; put it in the fridge only an hour or two before serving.

Shelf Life: Because the sugar content is high, icewine will last for three to five days after opening if stored in the refrigerator.

Best Enjoyed: On its own after a meal (think of it as dessert in a glass). The rule is to serve this rich, sweet wine with a dessert that is a bit lighter and less sweet, or with something savoury and full-flavoured for balance. Serving it with a too-rich or too-sweet dessert doesn't allow you to enjoy its merits. Try it with a simple dessert of fresh fruit with cheese, or as an aperitif with foie gras or rich pâtés. Red icewines with plum aromas pair well with chocolate. Icewine also makes amazing, if somewhat pricey, wine cocktails, which is a great way to use up any leftovers from the night before.

This story was originally titled "The Wine Taster: Icewine" in the February 2009 issue.

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Icewine: Intensely sweet and indulgent

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