by Sara d’Amato
Across the country, the Icewine harvest has recently finished. The Canadian ambrosia, which has put focus on our burgeoning wine regions, is still our greatest wine export and one that is big business. Although numerous wineries across the country produce at least one bottling per year, others focus the majority of their resources on Icewine.
The Icewine harvest is the catalyst for a profusion of festivities celebrating this golden-hued nectar. In Ontario alone, the celebrations showcasing Icewine include Niagara’s Icewine Festival, the Xerox Icewine Gala, Jordan’s Winterfest and Niagara-on-the-Lake’s equally chilly Icewine Fest where Icewine-based cocktails are showcased for an international panel of judges. When the harvest is in full swing, so are a multitude of rosy-cheeked wine lovers on Niagara’s wine route.
A 200 year-old German accident, thought to be the result of an early frost in Franconia may have been the birth of Icewine, but it has become known as a Canadian specialty. British Columbia wins the race for the earliest commercial incarnation of Icewine which was produced by the Okanagan’s Hainle Vineyards in 1978. In Ontario, Karl Kaiser, Austrian-born biochemist and viticulturalist, is widely credited as the pioneer of our Icewine tradition with notable contributions from Donald Ziraldo, his business partner and co-founder of Inniskillin, along with the efforts of Peter Gamble, at the time winemaker of Hillebrand and Ewald Rief, of Reif Estates, among others. Cementing Canada as Icewine specialists was the win of Vinexpo’s Grand Prix d’Honneur in 1991 given to Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal Icewine. This award was not only a tremendous honour but one that shifted the world’s attention, if only for a moment, to our heritage and to the potential future of wine production in our nation.
We have an advantage here in Canada: it is cold every year, cold enough every winter for the grapes to freeze on the vines, should we let them, and make a relatively fine Icewine. Even the majority of Icewine producing nations cannot claim this level of reliability. As much as some may hate to admit it, it is the cold that has made us famous.
Our VQA standards are strict for the production of Icewine and it is these high standards that strengthen our reputation. These requirements include a sustained temperature requirement of minus 8 degrees Celsius or lower in order to begin harvest. Most producers wait until the thermometer dips just a little further, between -10 and-12 degrees for the sake of certainty. Harvest is usually done after nightfall, when the temperatures are lowest. These temperatures hit the country’s Icewine producing regions anytime between December and February. This year’s harvest, largely complete by January, proved to be right on average for Ontario and even earlier in BC.
Due to the specialized requirements of Icewine, harvest is usually done by hand, but recently, mechanized harvesting has become a possibility. The main advantage of machine harvesting is speed, which is nowhere more imperative than in the picking of Icewine where timing is crucial and expense is steep.
In addition to the temperature restrictions, in order to bear the VQA symbol the grapes must be either vinifera or made from the vidal hybrid variety. Those hallowed varieties must be carefully monitored from just before full ripeness to the moment of picking. Grapevines destined for Icewine production must be netted to prevent bird attacks, at least to some extent. We’re not the only ones with a sweet tooth – without those pricey nets, you might think you were in a Hitchcock film. Other perils such as wild animal grazing, including bears, require clever diversion.
Pressing of these frozen morsels must also be done at the same low, sustained temperatures. As about 80% of the grape is composed of water, and in the case of Icewine, most of it frozen, only about 15% of a normal table wine yield is expected. Not only are these grapes frozen but they are also partially dehydrated, further concentrating the sugars. The pressing is usually done in smaller sized, hydraulic presses and requires a much greater degree of pressure than for other wines. Left behind in the press is much of the frozen water, separated from juices that are often measured well above the minimum VQA Brix requirement of 35. If that number is of no meaning for you, it is often twice the amount of sugar required for a table wine of the same variety. Brix is the scale for measuring the amount of sugar in a solution at a given temperature.
As frosty and uninviting as the Icewine harvest sounds, once the pressed juice enters the winery, the hardest part is not over. Even once the temperature of the juice rises, having yeasts ferment in such a high sugar medium is no easy task. Many winemakers have aptly called this process “extreme winemaking”.
Debra Inglis, Ph.D. and associate professor at CCOVI at Brock University, in her cleverly titled article, “Make Icewine Easier, at Least for Yeast” offers an “arsenal of best practices” for winemakers to use to combat the problems of this “hostile territory for yeast”, causing “sluggish, incomplete fermentations, which can lead to wines with low alcohol and high volatile acidity (VA).” This volatile acidity can be quite notable in a problematic Icewine and is a greater risk for wines harvested at very high Brix levels.
Yet, year after year, hardy Canadian winemakers and viticulturalists brave the cold and defy odds in the winery to produce this most famous Canadian treat. Thankfully, the results seem promising for a quality vintage in 2015 for two of the most important Canadian regions for quality Icewine production: BC and Ontario.
We all think we’ve been lucky this year with a green Christmas and featherweight parkas into January, but despite some higher than seasonal temperatures, it was not an unusual year for Icewine. The harvest was largely complete in January and although many producers were reporting lower yields than the norm, VQA reports this has been a relatively average year.
However, the vintage of 2015 will certainly be more than just “average”. One of Niagara’s most esteemed producers of Icewine, Piliteri Winery’s Director of Viticulture, Jamie Slingerland (and reigning Grape King) says, “The 2015 vintage of Icewine grapes this year was a resounding success contrary to opinion that numerous media outlets felt would occur.” He also reports that birds were less of a problem this year, fewer in number and well fed due to less snowy ground cover which helped yields in certain sites. Pilliteri’s winemaker Aleksandar Kolundzic also predicts great results as a “few days after fermentation started, the whole fermentation room was filled with aromas of flower garden in full bloom which is sign of good Icewine in making.”
Michèle Bosc of Chateau des Charmes winery echoes these thoughts: “January 12th came and we saw daytime temperatures hover around -12C. Perfect conditions. We picked everything that day.” Although yield reductions were notable for the winery, they were not cause for alarm.
In BC, the harvest was early and the yields were low, at least in some parts of the Okanagan – both of those factors make for a promising outcome. In fact, the first picking this year was as early as November 25th when the temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees Celsius. January 2nd saw the last of the frosted grapes picked, at a time when most in Ontario had not yet begun. The BC Wine Institute reports that this is the third consecutive year BC’s Icewine harvest started as early as November.
Volcanic Hills Winery was one of the earliest to harvest, reporting that: “Our Icewine harvest this year was really fantastic. We picked the majority of our chardonnay, riesling, and zweigelt Icewines on Nov. 25th. An early harvest means we aren’t competing with the hungry birds and bears, and we also had an unusual early 2015 Spring”, says proprietor, Amit Gidda.
Winemaker David Paterson of Tantalus Vineyards makes the point that Icewine is a much riskier business in BC than it is in Ontario. Due to the variegated sloped terrain, mechanized picking is not possible in most areas and many wineries, such as Tantalus would agree that Icewine is a very small portion of their business. In some years, it is difficult to produce any Icewine south of Naramata due to warmer temperatures. Although Icewine isn’t big business in BC, certainly in comparison with Ontario, the last three, early harvested vintages have shown some exquisite results.
This year, a great range of grape varieties were used for the production in BC including cabernet franc, chardonnay, ehrenfelser, gamay noir, gewürztraminier, merlot, oraniensteiner, pinot blanc, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, syrah, vidal, viognier and zweigelt, reports Laura Kittmer of the BC Wine Institute.
Icewine in Export
How are we doing? Strong and steady! In Ontario, the largest export market by far is China with an estimated $4,022,135 sold in 2015. In 2013 the Icewine craze hit the United States, resulting in a six-fold increase in Ontario Icewine sales. The US now sits just behind China with an estimated $3,969,644 in sales in 2015. South Korea followed by the UK are showing steady increases in sales since 2011.
BC’s much smaller production and hence smaller exportable product has seen less growth and is more affected by variations in crop yields and vintages. Regardless, despite vintage fluctuations, its export quantities remain steady with 25,422 litres exported in 2014.
Despite an often lukewarm appeal to wine lovers at home, there is no sign of decline in popularity of this sweet nectar abroad. There is no way around the fact that it is a “special occasion” beverage due to its price and high level of sweetness. Luckily, Icewine has an extremely long lifespan due to the convergence of, primarily, a high degree of residual sugar and an important acid content, so there is plenty of time to find just the right occasion to indulge.
Varietal Selection and Technological developments
Icewine is more dynamic than one might expect. It can be drunk right away, or can age and develop for decades. But further to this, it can be made from a multitude of varieties, though only possible with ones hardy enough to make through the coldest months of the year. An aromatic character and a good balance of natural acidity are also preferable for producing high quality Icewine.
Despite the rise of the popularity of red Icewines, most notably that of cabernet franc, the two main varieties remain vidal and riesling. The hybrid vidal that makes up a considerable percentage of Ontario’s total wine production is very winter hardy and grows easily in Niagara’s climate (where the majority of Icewine is produced). Due to its bracingly high natural acidity, Riesling is a star candidate for producing finely balanced Icewine. The best stuff is not cloying and the natural potency of freshness innate to the riesling grape makes for a consumer favourite.
New technologies over the past 5-10 years have lead to a significantly better product and most of these advances are focused on crop loss, pressing, and speed of harvest. Martin Werner of Ravine Vineyard credits new colour-striped netting helpful in bird diversion for lessening crop loss. Jamie Slingerland of Pilliteri sheds light on how new technologies have greatly impacted their production:
“I have to credit the changes in technology that have resulted in greater efficiencies of harvest and presses. 20 years ago most grapes were harvested by hand and people lasted 4-6 hours in the cold on their knees when cold snaps lasted 24 hours. Today there are significantly fewer people looking to pick Icewine and significantly more wineries. Mechanical harvesting has enabled growers to harvest more per hour, lose less grapes and work much longer hours… As for pressing the frozen grapes, the industry uses specialized hydraulic presses for Icewine only. These presses are five times faster than screw or bladder presses and extract better/more juice per hour. With our crews working around the clock a vintage of Icewine grapes can be pressed within a three week period.”
Terroir in Icewine
The most intriguing and noteworthy wines display a sense of regional character, and a sense of place that gives them unique character. However, in wines that have a high concentration of alcohol, oak or sweetness, one could argue that that sense of place is overwhelmed or masked. Does the blanket of sweetness obscure the expression of terroir in Icewine? In order to get some perspective on the issue, I spoke to “terroir specialist” David Paterson of Tantalus Vineyards in B.C., who focuses on the production of single-vineyard wines that express an authentic sense of place. Paterson suggests that early picks of Icewine show a greater expression of terroir than do later picks. The thawing and freezing common to later picks causes some desiccation and cellular breakdown leading to complex flavours but it is the pure flavours of the early freeze that allow the wine to express the terroir more authentically. The terroir marker of “crunchy acids,” apparent in the white wines of Tantalus, is also notable in their early freeze Icewines of the past three vintages. That acidic component gives the wines a tart-sweet lemon meringue pie flavour as opposed to a cloying feel.
The Canadian Icewine industry is indisputably evolving with the rise of the export market, more efficient production methods and growers and producers finding new ways to promote and encourage the consumption of Icewine locally. The meritorious hype regarding this 2015 vintage in BC and Niagara will surely only help to ensure the survival and flourishing of this product that has put Canada’s wine industry on the international wine map. And although Canadian producers seem to be divided by those who put out an obligatory Icewine and those who choose to focus the majority of their attention on the style, we still, as an industry, to some degree rely on the awareness of it to promote other wines. Love it or hate it, the 2015 vintage will be one that is worthy of our attention and perhaps, rediscovery.
Top Ontario Picks:
Malivoire 2013 Cabernet Franc Icewine, Beamsville Bench, VQA Niagara Peninsula
Cave Spring 2014 Riesling Icewine, VQA Niagara Peninsula
Sue Ann Staff 2012 Howard’s Vidal Icewine, VQA Niagara Peninsula
Photos courtesy of Chateau des Charmes and Wines of Ontario