But pass by in winter and you'll find leafless vines bearing snow-covered grapes, all carefully wrapped in nets. Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson watches those grapes with great care. When they're naturally frozen at -10°C—attaining the perfect combination of sugar and acidity—they will be quickly harvested and pressed. Then, the resulting juice will be fermented to create icewine.
This sweet, concentrated drink, usually served with dessert—or as dessert—is believed to date back to 1794 in Germany, when monks, surprised by an early frost, pressed frozen grapes and fermented the concentrated nectar. They called the result eiswein. In the 1970s, German immigrants brought the eiswein tradition to Canada and found the ideal climate in Ontario, where warm summers ripen the grapes and reliably cold(but not too cold) winters freeze them. The province is known for icewines with a rich concentration and balanced acidity, with flavours of such tropical fruits aslemon, lime, pineapple, lichee and papaya. Like other wines, their alcohol content varies, usually from eight to 13 percent.
To ensure that the province continues to produce top-quality wine, Canada's Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) sets standards—including grape varieties and harvest procedures—and monitors production. "Legally, you can harvest grapes at -8°C, but I like to wait until -10°C," says Nicholson. "I get less volume, but I get a better concentration of flavours." The colder the temperature, the more the water inside the grape freezes, yielding a smaller amount of juice but more intensity of flavours.
Canada is the world's leading producer of icewine, with Ontario contributing 90 percent and an average volume of 850,000 litres every year. "I like that it's uniquely Canadian," says Nicholson. "We didn't invent it, but I think we have excelled at it." He's been in the industry for 30 years, making wines in both B.C.'s Okanagan Valley and in Ontario's Niagara region.
In Niagara, the icewine Nicholson produces ranges from $8 for a 50 mL bottle of 2011 Vidal Icewine to $500 for a 750 mL bottle of the Inniskillin 40th Anniversary Single-Vineyard Limited Edition Riesling Icewine. Only 888 bottles of the limited-edition Riesling icewine were produced, so it's expected to become a â€¨collector's item.
The price of icewine also reflects the grape variety. Vidal grapes, for example, go into about 75 percent of the icewine in Canada. "Vidal grapes, with their thicker skin, are better at withstanding the harsh elements than other varieties," says Nicholson. He also produces Riesling and Cabernet Franc, but because there are fewer of these crops available, they produce smaller volumes of icewine.
All in the grapes
Regardless of the grape variety used, icewine production is tricky. "We call it ‘extreme winemaking,' " says Nicholson. "It's more difficult and more challenging." Grapes are picked when they're frozen and pressed immediately—a process typically done overnight. The juice is then fermented in stainless-steel tanks for a period of anywhere from two weeks to four months before bottling. It takes two to six months for a bottle of icewine to be ready.
"The grapes go through the same treatment during the growing season as regular-harvest grapes, but we have to net them in late autumn—the netting helps keep birds away until the grapes are ready to be harvested," says Nicholson. "In the winter, the source of food for birds is really limited, and they'll go after any grapes that are left on the vines. That's part of the risk." Inniskillin learned that lesson the hard way: In 1983, the winery didn't place nets on what was to be its first vintage of icewine and lost the entire crop to hungry birds.
The risks may indeed be high, but as Nicholson will attest, the results are well worth it. "It's concentrated, well balanced and has great acidity and multiple flavours," â€¨he says. "The best icewine tastes incredible."
Through the grapevine
- About 3.5 kilograms of grapes, depending on the variety and temperature, are needed to produce one 375 mL bottle of Inniskillin Estate Winery icewine—the same amount used to produce about three 750 mL bottles of table wine.
- For authentic icewine, grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine, harvested and pressed while the air temperature remains at or below -8°C.
- The vintage of an icewine reflects the growing season. If the wine is picked in January of 2015, the vintage is 2014 because that's when the grapes were growing.
Check out this delicious recipe for Apple and Canadian Blue Cheese Tartlets with Icewine Glaze.