WHO WOULD have thought that one of Europe’s most well-kept wine secrets, the ice wine (also written as one word, icewine), would also be Canada’s biggest contribution to the world of wine?
It was in the late 1700s that the process of making ice wine was accidentally discovered in Franconia, Germany. It was then that the idea of pressing juice out of frozen grapes arose. At the height of winter, with temperatures dropping below -10° C, grapes are frozen on the vine, with the inside pulp showing extremely high sugar concentration. The natural water portion of the juice turns into ice crystals, and only the rich pulp of the grape is extracted to be made into this luscious wine. With ice wines, the freezing happens in the vineyard before fermentation, not in the winery. The process is extremely different from that of other sweet dessert-like wines like French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokaji, as ice wine grapes are not influenced by the noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea).
Limited commercial production and release of ice wine (in German “Eiswein”) started in the mid to late 1800s, at Rheingau, Southwestern Germany.
Almost a century later, in 1978, Canadian Walter Hainle through his Hainle Vineyards made the first commercially available Canadian ice wine in Okanagan, British Columbia (BC). In 2002, the Hainle Vineyards were bought by the Huber family. While Okanagan is known as the original home of ice wine in Canada, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is actually the largest area producer of ice wine (accounting for 75% of total ice wine production in Canada). Also, Canada produces the most ice wines in the world and is a far bigger producer than second placed Germany. Due to Canada’s freezing winters, ice wines are grown in all of the country’s wine growing areas, from Ontario and British Columbia, to Quebec and Nova Scotia. Ice wines are also made in European countries such as Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland – but in really miniscule quantities.
Ice wine is known as liquid gold because of the very expensive price tag on normally a half size bottle of 375 ml. The price may range in retail from $40/bottle to as much as five times more. To realize how precious this type of wine is and to justify its sinful price tag, one has to first understand that there is high mortality of grapes in winter – roughly only 10% of the grapes remain attached to their vines at the height of ice wine harvest season. In addition, the pulp that is used in ice wine fermentation is around 60% of the total juice of the grape, making actual harvest extremely small, and a resulting wine that is only 5-6% of original volume.
In Canada, ice wine wine-making process must follow regulations set by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) – this is roughly equivalent to the Appellation Origen Controlee (or AOC) classification in France. With Canadian ice wine, the rules are extremely strict. At the height of winter, the grapes for ice wine are handpicked in their frozen stage. The frozen grapes are then immediately pressed. The frozen water crystals in the juice are then segregated from the concentrated pulp. And the concentrated pulp is then used for slow fermentation covering several months. No artificial freezing is allowed. The final wine is one of a golden hue, with luscious sweetness, good viscosity, and unbelievable depth.
Typical grapes used in Canadian ice wines are riesling, vidal, and, for a pink or red version, cabernet franc. Other grapes also used for ice wines, but to a lesser degree, are pinot gris and chardonnay. While riesling is the most popular varietal for German eiswein, vidal is the grape most identified with Canadian ice wine. The vidal varietal is a hybrid crossed from the French ugni blanc grape (the same grape used for Cognac in France) and another grape, seibel. The vidal varietal was named after its original breeder, Frenchman Jean Louis Vidal.
In 1991, after just a little over 12 years of commercial production, Canadian ice wine got its biggest recognition when the Inniskillin 1989 Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine won the most coveted and highest bestowed title of Le Grand Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux Vinexpo Fair in France – considered the world’s best wine fair and judged by distinguished international panel of wine experts.
So, maybe next time in any intelligent discussion on the best wine producing countries, perhaps a mention of Canada will not be scoffed at. After all, we all like sweets, and what other wine can you pair with a delectable cheesecake or scrumptious tiramisu than Canadian liquid gold?
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.