BC Wine Report December 2014 : Icewine and Other Sweet Somethings
The early start to the 2014 Icewine season focuses Treve Ring on all things sweet from BC vineyards. And what a bounty we have!
BC’s annual Icewine harvest got off to a very early start this year, with unusually chilly temperatures allowing wineries to start harvesting the icy marbles on November 12. Though not the earliest start to the Icewine harvest on record (that would be November 5, 2003), it’s in stark contrast to some years, where conditions for harvest aren’t achievable until the following calendar year.
If you’re not familiar with Icewine harvesting, it’s the stuff of legend, and not nearly as easy as you might imagine. Have you ever squeezed marbles? Though Icewine is a term that’s bandied about often in BC, not all sweet BC wines are Icewine, the pinnacle at the top of a sugar-stacked pyramid. This precious elixir is made from hand-harvested grapes naturally frozen on the vine, and harvested – most likely – in the middle of a frigid Okanagan winter night. Only a few drops of highly concentrated juice come from each frozen bunch.
The conditions required to produce Icewine are harsh, regulated and strict: grapes must be frozen naturally on the vine at a minimum temperature of -8 degrees Celsius, for a minimum of 4 hours and at least 35 brix sweetness. The grapes must be picked and pressed immediately – usually in the vineyard (don’t forget it’s below freezing!).
Here in BC, the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation closely control the production of BC VQA Icewine. Artificial refrigeration of grapes, juice, must or wine is strictly prohibited and producers must contact the BC Wine Authority to report the time harvesting begins, and to confirm prior reported tonnages and exact areas of vineyard left for Icewine production. As of November, there were 29 wineries registered with the BC Wine Authority to pick an estimated 931 standard tons of Icewine grapes on an estimated 235 acres.
Inniskillin Okanagan winemaker Derek Kontkanen reported that this was their winery’s earliest Icewine harvest on record; his Oliver team started picking riesling at 3am on November 12, when the thermometer registered -12.2˚C. To Kontkanen, and many others, this was the icing on the top of an ideal vintage.
Jane Hatch, manager of Kelowna’s Tantalus Vineyards notes that “The grapes are in pristine condition and the resulting juice will be clear and very, very pure. I can’t wait to see it finished and in the bottle.” Tantalus finished their icewine harvest at 4am on November 13. “The juice is tasting gorgeous – pure and fresh with no shortage of sweetness.”
Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s Ezra Cipes shares the optimism. “Icewine is something we can do better here in the Okanagan than anywhere else on earth. To make outstanding Icewine you need to start with outstanding grapes, and 2014 was one of the best Okanagan growing seasons ever. Now to have this cold snap so early in November, and harvest our Icewine grapes before the birds get them is making us all smile and sing around the winery. This is a blessed vintage.”
We’re spoiled in BC with a climate suitable for annual Icewine production – so much so that we joke that it’s the most re-gifted wine on the planet. With 250 g/l of residual sugar, it’s not an everyday sipper if you want to protect those pearly whites, and most of us are not daily sweet wine drinkers, regardless of how exalted it may be around the world.
Icewine is just one of the many sweet wines produced in BC; there are various styles, grapes, production methods, quality levels, price ranges and serving possibilities to look for. Here are a few main categories to look for, and how to use them.
As noted above, Icewine is very labour intensive to produce. In addition to pickers and producers working in below freezing conditions – required via regulation – each frozen marble of a grape yields only 1 drop of juice. Yields can range from 150 to 300 litres per ton (compared to approximately 600 litres per ton for dry table wines). After inoculation with a potent, gutsy yeast, fermentation can continue for months due to the wine’s high sugar levels. It’s pretty clear why the prices for such slim bottles rise so high. If you have a bottle, you’re safe to hold onto it for a bit. Icewines, particularly from riesling, can age for over 10 years.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Kerner Icewine 2013 is as light and fresh as icewine can possibly be, in contrast to a trio of uber-opulent styles seen in Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Riesling Icewine 2013, Inniskillin Okanagan Dark Horse Riesling Icewine 2012 and Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Reserve Riesling Icewine 2013.
If you’re keen on trying something different, the vidal grape, most often seen in Ontario, is prominent in the lemon-forward Mission Hill Family Estate Winery Reserve Vidal Icewine 2013. Different (and honestly, surprising) is also the word for the stylish and successful Kalala Organic Estate Merlot Icewine 2011.
If I had to select just one icewine this year to gift or give, it would have to be the Stoneboat Vineyards Verglas 2011. This shimmering beauty is a blend of old vine oraniensteiner and pinot blanc, with 55% botrytis affected before freezing on the vine. Burnished gold in the glass, and on the palate, and nearly as rare.
Late Harvest is almost self-explanatory: wines made from grapes that were left on the vine past the end of regular harvest. The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the greater opportunity for the ripe, sometimes raisinating fruit to build and swell with sugar. That is, of course, if the rains/frost/deer/birds/wasps don’t get to them first. The sugar-rich grapes naturally translate to a wine that is sweeter and higher in alcohol content, and can range from just off-dry to mid-sweet and beyond.
Many grapes are tapped for late harvest styles here, but Riesling is most common, as in the Harper’s Trail Late Harvest Riesling Thadd Springs Vineyard 2012. Gray Monk Kerner 2013 is a bit of a shy sweetie, since there is no description on the label to reflect the wine’s 53 g/l residual sugar.
Hester Creek Estate Winery Late Harvest Pinot Blanc 2012 and Robin Ridge Winery Late Harvest Sun Sweet Chardonnay 2013 demonstrate the diversity in grapes and styles (and range of pairing opportunities) of late harvest wines.
One of my favourite from the past year is the Clos du Soleil Saturn 2013, a complete, elegant and expansive late harvest sauvignon blanc that glides along the palate.
The kingliest of fungus, also known as noble rot, develops on grapes under certain humid and warm conditions, and can’t be controlled or created artificially. When carefully cultivated, botrytis causes the grape to shrivel into moldy raisins (yum!), concentrating and intensifying both sugar and flavour. In addition, the acid levels remain high, which prevents the resulting wines from being cloyingly sweet. Wines often carry honeysuckle flavours, and a savoury/ pleasantly bitter component on the finish.
Quails’ Gate Winery Totally Botrytis Affected Optima 2013 is a highly regarded example, rightly so (and as the name infers, affected, totally one assumes, with noble rot). BC’s closest kin to Bordeaux’s legendary Sauternes.
During fermentation from sugary grape juice into dry alcoholic wine, these wines were interrupted with the addition of spirit. The high alcohol spirit stops fermentation, leaving a whack of sugar in the wine along with a resultant higher alcohol content. Port-style wines are made this way. Of course, we all know that true Port only comes from Portugal.
All of the wines from Naramata’s La Frenz Winery are a bit cultish, a bit under the radar, and quite a bit coveted. Liqueur Muscat NV is no exception, so if you see it, buy it. This special wine was made in a traditional solera system dating back to 1999, and is a blend of three muscat varieties.
If you’ve given up on marechal foch because of one too many poorly made, foxy examples, Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2011 might just be the rich, figgy, chocolate-pairing wine to bring you back.
These adventurous dessert wines demonstrate the will of our youthful wine industry in BC. From honey to berries to apples to nuts, cooking to freezing to fortifying, the specialized wines below make a statement and a unique gift.
With a vibrant fruit growing climate, it’s no wonder that sweet fruit wines have moved from cottage industry to successful business venture. Making use of the interior’s orchard bounty is a natural choice, like Asian pears in Forbidden Fruit Winery Impearfection 2012 or organic apricots like in their Forbidden Fruit Caught Apricot Mistelle 2013. Vancouver Island’s ubiquitous “blackberry port wines” vary wildly, but one of the most stylish is Averill Creek Vineyard Cowichan Black, utilizing the abundance of wild blackberries on the Island in a balanced, lifted dessert pour.
Cobble Hill’s idiosyncratic Venturi Schulze produces the singular Brandenburg #3, made by crushing, cooking, concentrating, cooling and then fermenting madelaine sylvaner. And Elephant Island Orchard Wines utilizes the solera system, but employs richly scented stella cherries from their Naramata Bench orchard to create their rich, concentrated and layered Stellaport NV.
Though iced cider is much better known and appreciated in Quebec, Saanich Peninsula’s Sea Cider has created a concentrated caramel apple sipper of their own from organic crab apples, with the silken Pomona. And across the water in the Fraser Valley comes the contemplative Vista D’oro Winery d’Oro, a walnut wine that follows a centuries old recipe from northern France for vin de noix, utilizing local marechal foch and walnuts from their 100+ year old tree.
Just like all sweeties aren’t created equal, neither are all sweet wines. There’s one here for you, and yours, to warm up with this winter.
Cheers ~ Treve
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Photos courtesy of Tantalus Vineyards