If there's a poster child for the ethos of the what-doesn't-kill-you-only-makes-you-stronger philosophy, it's Icewine. After they finish harvesting the last of the grapes for table wine, Ontario's winemakers set their sights on this world-renown delicacy.
Before the cold snap early last week, it was looking like the majority of grapes destined for Icewine would still be on the vine at start of the 2012 Niagara Icewine Festival, which begins this weekend. Now it appears everyone can celebrate the end of another Icewine harvest.
Icewine is made with ripe grapes left to freeze completely on the vines, often picked in the wee hours by hand, and pressed immediately in negative double-digit temperatures. The conditions are about as extreme as winemaking gets. As sixth generation winegrower Paul-André Bosc of Château des Charmes explains, “I've described the process to growers from warmer climates like South Africa and they say 'you're out of your mind'.” But much like the Aurora Borealis in Canada's north, it's the extreme natural conditions that make this unique and beautiful beverage possible.
Although Icewine can naturally be made in a handfuls of countries, Canada, and Niagara in particular, is the only place that can consistently produce it in high quantity, and high quality, every year. Like all good wine growing regions, the key is the special natural conditions. Lake Ontario's heat-sink effect and the warm breezes that come off of it and re-circulate when they hit the Niagara Escarpment means grapes slowly mature over the season, but it cools down quickly enough to allow freezing before rot. But even under these ideal conditions there are certain windows that some winemakers have found are ideal for making the quality Icewine.
For former winemaker and Inniskillin cofounder Karl Kaiser, mid-December-January on a clear, cold and still day between -9˚C and -11˚C is ideal. Pick much earlier in the season and the grapes haven't developed complexity and concentration. The freeze and thaw cycles that come from hanging on the vine into winter change the grapes. These cycles free flavours into the juice that are otherwise trapped in the fruit when they're quickly frozen. Wait much later in the season and the already low yields are further reduced as the grapes breakdown, requiring lower temperatures to freeze. It takes 24 times the amount grapes to make Icewine than it does an equal volume of table wine. Similarly, pressing at -8˚C means less frozen water in the grapes, leading to leaner juice. Pressing between -12˚C and -14˚C (the limit) results in very concentrated juice and reduced yields. Even in ideal conditions it's up to the winemaker to achieve the right balance between sugar, alcohol and acid so it tastes fresh, not flabby and cloying by the time your glass is empty, according to Kaiser.
He would know.
The legendary and technical winemaker was part of the tight-knit German-speaking winemaking community who half-jokingly experimented with the idea of making Icewine nearly 30 years ago. In 1983, Kaiser and fellow Austrians Andreas Gestaltner, winemaker at Hillebrand and Walter Strehn, winemaker at Pelee Island as well as German Ewald Reif of his eponymous winey, decided to take advantage of Ontario's cold winters and try to make Icewine—a rare specialty in their homelands. Only Pelee Island and Hillebrand, which calls itself the Icewine pioneer in Niagara, were successful. Kaiser sourced nets in 1984 after birds ate all the grapes while he was away at a wine conference. Over that decade those pioneers quickly realised they might be on to something, but the world finally took notice after Kaiser's 1989 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine won best wine of the show at the 1991 Bordeaux Vinexpo. Since then Niagara Icewine vintners have honed their craft and cemented Canada's reputation as a producer of quality wine on the back of this sweet specialty.
Strict rules have also been key in keeping quality high. VQA regulations state anything labeled Icewine requires it be made from grapes left on the vines to naturally freeze. They can be harvested no earlier than Nov. 15th and must be pressed immediately after picking at at least -8˚C. The brix, a measure of sugar ripeness, must also be 35˚at harvest with residual (unfermented) sugar of the wine measuring 125g/L. These minimum criteria are amongst the highest in the world of dessert wines.
Still, there's something else that makes Icewine unique even amongst the great dessert wines. Unlike those from warmer climates that use air-drying, Icewine is able to preserve its natural high acidity due to its cold growing conditions. Also, the natural freezing maintains a freshness and pure fruit character that comes only from the grapes and isn't transformed by dehydrating fungus, like with botrytis dessert wines. So with Icewine you arguably have the most naturally balanced and purest flavour amongst the world's great dessert wines, explains Kaiser.
That balance is key, according to Allison Slute, Export Manager for Pillitteri Estates. The certified sommelier has had the chance to taste many dessert wines in her travels representing the world's largest estate producer of Icewine. “You sit down to a glass of Pedro Ximénez Sherry and you might as well be drinking maple syrup—it's very, very sweet,” she says. Although Icewine can rival some pretty intense sweet wines, it always tastes balanced because the acidity is so well preserved by the natural process.
That fine balance between sugar and acid is what makes it an enjoyable and a versatile partner for food. Although sweet, but not saccharine, desserts like dark chocolate tortes are a natural compliment, savoury items work too. For instance, the honey, apricot and heavenly body of Vidal Icewine has become a classic match for foie gras or a strong blue cheese like Blue Bénédictin. Even something like a spiced tuna tartare studded with a touch of fiery chili pepper, which would obliterate the subtleties of a more delicate aromatic white table wine, sings with a Riesling Icewine. It also shows its versatility with our modern eating habits. The success of drinking Icewine alongside notoriously difficult to pair exotic dishes like Indian Mulligatawny soup, spicy tacos and Pad Thai is something that's being demonstrated through the Icewine Festival—you can judge those pairings for yourself with a Discovery Pass.
At first, Icewine may have been a "make lemonade out of lemons" situation when it comes to Ontario's cool climate. But just as wineries have embraced the climate as a unique strength allowing for this sweet elixir, they've also started to champion the idea that Icewine is too versatile to be relegated to dessert alone. The experimentation with more interesting pairings has been embraced in recent years and is now wide-spread throughout the Icewine Festival, explains Slute. “If you come down during the Icewine festival there's this really cool vibe around what it is we are doing and the culture around it. We have something very unique…When you visit a wine region, you want to experience something unique and different.”
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.