When it comes to Icewine, nobody beats Niagara! Icewine is a dessert wine style known for its extremely high level of natural sugar and for its intensity of flavour. But how exactly is this sugary, highly focused wine achieved? Let’s learn more about this exciting product and expose the natural magic behind Niagara’s Icewine.
Icewine in Canada
I like to think of Icewine as one of Canada’s national products. We often struggle to find products that are uniquely Canadian. Because the Canadian culture is a mosaic of other cultures from around the world, what exactly is a quintessentially Canadian food or drink? It is easy to default to maple syrup. Usually poutine is mentioned. And then we run out of ideas. I would place BC Salmon and Alberta Beef on the table as Canadian foods. And let’s not forget about the Caesar cocktail which was first mixed in Calgary in 1969. Ontario alone produces over 85% of the world’s Icewine. On this basis I would like to submit Icewine as a distinctively Canadian beverage product as well.
Where is it Made?
Icewine is made in several wine producing regions around the world. In fact, it is the Germans who first created it in the late 1700s, calling it ‘Eiswein.’ Niagara-on-the-Lake provides a warm growing season to mature the grapes. This is followed by a predictably cold winter to freeze the fruit naturally on the vine. This climatic dichotomy makes Niagara-on-the-Lake quite simply the best wine producing region in the world for Icewine grapes.
The word ‘Icewine’ is a legally protected term protected under the Vintners Quality Alliance Act of 1999 in the province of Ontario. The criteria to be met in order to label a wine product as Icewine are strict. Using the term without authorization can result in fines of up to $100,000 for the producer. Firstly, only approved Vitis Vinifera varieties, as well as the hybrid grape variety, Vidal, may be used to make it. There are dozens of varieties that can be used including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon. But the three that are most commonly used are Vidal, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc. These varieties stand up best to the cold winter conditions needed to freeze the grapes naturally on the vine.
Grapes for Icewine must be harvested at a maximum temperature of at least -8°C. This temperature must maintain for at least 72 hours. This ensures that the water inside the fruit has formed into ice crystals. While the water inside the fruit turns into ice, the sugars and flavour compounds inside the grape do not freeze inside the ice. They remain separate in a tiny bit of liquid nectar which remains apart.
To ensure that these strict criteria are being followed, a representative of the VQA will be present during harvest. If the temperature rises above -8°C the grapes can still be used to make wine, but the product cannot be called Icewine. It would instead be called ‘Late Harvest’. Late Harvest is a dessert wine style that is about half as sweet as Icewine, and sells for about half the price. The harvest will usually take place overnight to minimize the chance of the temperature increasing due to the rising sun. Most grapes for this type of wine are harvested by hand, although mechanized harvesting for these grapes has recently been developed. Larger producers tend to use this form of harvesting. The grapes must be pressed while they are still naturally frozen. About 6 hours are needed from the beginning of harvest to the time the grapes are pressed.
How It’s Made
The amount of juice extracted from each grape is about 15% of what is extracted from a grape harvested to make table wine. Icewine will often get a bad rap for being “too expensive”. But when it is put in terms of juice-to-grape ratio, it’s quite a bargain.
Once the extra sugary juice (called ‘must’) is extracted from the skins, yeast will be added. As in the production of table wines, yeast will consume the natural sugars in the juice and change it into alcohol. Yeast struggles to survive in environments with too much sugar, and a tank of Icewine must certainly qualifies as an environment with too much sugar. The yeast will manage to change only a small amount of the sugar into alcohol before it dies. This results in a wine that is relatively low in alcohol and possesses a great deal of residual natural sugar.
By VQA standards, a wine must contain at least 100 grams of residual sugar per litre to be called Icewine. The amount of sugar is often more than twice as high as this minimum requirement. Once the fermentation is complete, the wine will be matured in a steel container to maintain fresh fruit flavours. It can also be matured in an oak barrel to add new layers of savoury complexity. After maturation the wine will be filtered to remove any suspended particulate and it is then bottled.
Exporting Around the World
At present, Canada is not exporting much of its wine product. Almost all of what is produced is consumed by the local market. The exception to the rule is Icewine. Icewine is exported to over 36 countries and most of it goes to China, Japan, Great Britain and America. A bottle of Icewine that would sell in Ontario for $60 could easily be sold in China for in excess of $400 when the law of supply and demand comes into play.
Bottled Icewine should be stored on its side to ensure the natural cork is in constant contact with the liquid inside. This will prevent the cork from drying out and will allow the wine to age in the bottle. The high level of natural sugar and acid in Icewine act as natural preservatives making it an ideal wine for ageing. A bottle of Icewine can easily age for over 10 years and will develop notes of caramel and kernel. Once opened, a bottle of Icewine can maintain its drinkability for 2 weeks. Use an inexpensive air pump system to remove oxygen from the bottle between openings to extend the life of the wine.
How to Drink Icewine
Icewine should be consumed like a liqueur. A 2 ounce pour of Icewine is considered a full serving, unlike table wines for which a 5 ounce pour would be considered a full serving. It is best consumed in glassware designed specifically for Icewine. These small, stemmed glasses have a tulip shape that forces the aromas toward your nose when you raise the glass to your lips. The shape also features an inward-curved lip that helps the wine to skip past the tip of your tongue when you drink it. Because it is lusciously sweet and it is the tip of the tongue that is most sensitive to sweetness, it is best enjoyed when it is held at the back of the tongue to pick up on the more complex savoury notes.
The Perfect Dessert Wine
In the western world, Icewine is most often enjoyed with dessert or as a dessert itself. It is a common misconception that it pairs best with sweet desserts. In fact, the best way to pair Icewine is to find foods that are the opposite of sweet. Think savoury, pungent, or spicy. Try aged blue cheese, foie gras, or spicy chicken wings with Icewine. You’ll be amazed at the way the sweet and the pungent find balance in each other resulting in a delectable culinary experience.
If drinking Icewine isn’t your thing, there are many was to use Icewine in your cooking. It can be used successfully as a constituent in salad dressings or can be reduced in a saucepan to make an intensely flavoured glaze. I’d recommend this for Ontario chicken breast or BC salmon.
The next time you enjoy Icewine be sure to raise a glass to the climate of Niagara-on-the-Lake that makes this natural magic possible! And join us on a Niagara Vintage Wine Tour to learn even more about it!
By: Michael Twyman
Sommelier and Wine Smart Guide