Canadian icewine makers producing liquid gold

ABOVE: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne praises the province’s icewine industry

TORONTO – A wine columnist is urging Canadians to drink icewine while cheering on the country’s Olympians next month.

“It’s Canada’s winter gold. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate our Canadian winters. I kind of think about our Canadian athletes too and I think we all should be drinking icewine while watching the Olympics,” says Natalie MacLean, editor of the wine review site, which has more than 156,000 members.

“It’s uniquely Canadian in that we are the biggest producer and the best producer, I think, in terms of quality. It’s just such an all-Canadian treat that I think people need to at least try it to experience what it is we do so well here.”

Canada stands at the top of the icewine podium, with almost 100 wineries out of 500 that last year produced 2.5 million bottles worth $70 million retail. The country’s icewine has won numerous gold medals internationally.

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While Germany and Austria also make the sweet beverage, their winters are not cold enough to consistently produce icewine every year.

Icewine makers must deal with the whims of Mother Nature.

“I do think they are the true athletes of the vine, those who make icewine. It’s like extreme winemaking,” MacLean said by telephone from Ottawa.

“I think it’s one of the toughest types of wine you can make on this planet because of the natural conditions that have to be there to produce this.

“They have to endure all of that – harvesting at -8 C or colder and so on, very difficult fermentation process because of high sugar. But then the artistry comes out.”

Icewine is pricey due to the production process. Still icewines can range from $25 to $60 for a 375-millilitre bottle, while sparkling icewines can cost up to $80 for the same size.

In Canada, winemakers producing true icewines must follow strict standards determined by the Vintners Quality Alliance.

Icewine is produced from grapes that have been left on the vine after the fall harvest. When temperatures drop to -8 C or lower, the frozen grapes are picked, typically at night, and pressed immediately, with winemakers working around the clock in sub-zero conditions.

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“A lot of growers will pick down to -12 C, but at -14 it’s really hard to get any juice out of those little frozen pellets,” explains MacLean. “At -16 they won’t yield anything. They’ll just break your press. They’re ice marbles.”

In Ontario’s Niagara region, the harvest started early as the temperature began to dip below -8 C in late November, the Wine Council of Ontario said in a news release.

“It’s all about the concentration of the flavours,” says MacLean. “That’s what you’re looking for. That’s what has happened to these grapes.

“They’ve frozen, but in the meantime because they were freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing throughout December that made the flavours more complex and then it also dehydrated the grapes, so what you’re left with is a concentration of flavour and sugar which makes the complexity of the wine.”

There are some Quebec producers who call what they make icewine, but the grapes are not naturally frozen on the vine and picked at -8 C, says MacLean.

Icewine is thought to have been accidentally discovered in Germany in 1794 when farmers tried to save their grape harvest after a sudden frost.

Hainle Vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley was the first Canadian winery to make the wine that is renowned for its intense flavour and smoothness. In 1978, the winery released its first batch of commercial icewine, becoming North America’s first icewine producer.

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Ontario now produces the lion’s share of the country’s icewine, while British Columbia is next, then Nova Scotia and Quebec. Much of Canada’s icewine is exported to China.

Icewine should be served well chilled. A regular white wine glass allows enough room to swirl the wine and enjoy its aromas.

Even though it’s sweet, don’t think of it as only suitable with dessert. Try it at the beginning of a meal with nuts and cheeses or foie gras.

Icewine can also be served during a meal with a glazed ham or something with a bit of sweetness or caramelization. “Icewine is low in alcohol, it’s not cloyingly sweet, it’s got the balancing acidity, so it will surprise you in its diversity and complexity,” says MacLean.

Port and sherry clock in at about 19 per cent alcohol content. Icewine is usually 10 or 11 per cent.

Several communities across the country are hosting events to celebrate the liquid gold.

The Niagara Icewine Festival runs till Jan. 26. Events in the 17th annual festival are being hosted throughout the region, where visitors can admire sparkling ice sculptures, warm up to open fires and enjoy live entertainment.

Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia hosts its 16th annual Winter Okanagan Wine Festival until Sunday, and showcases local icewines and table wines along with food and outdoor recreation.

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In the Maritimes, several local wineries are collaborating on special icewine tours and tasting events during the Nova Scotia Icewine Festival, part of Winter in Nova Scotia Wine Country, which runs Feb. 7-16.

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