Canada part III: icewine

Icewine in from the cold

xPicture the scene: it is late August and heavy, sweet bunches of grapes hang from vines thick with leaves and full of vigour. The harvest begins one sunny morning, with workers in tee shirts and shorts chattering and laughing as they snip bunches of plump, glossy grapes, working fast before afternoon temperatures soar.

And now it is January and the dead of night. The vineyard is bathed in blue moonlight and covered in frost and snow. The temperature is –10°C, but the wind chill whipping across the barren land makes it feel like –40°C. The pickers, muffled in layers of clothing, begin to work their way along the vines. They must negotiate the icy slopes, and fight with the netting that has been protecting the vines since summer.

The grapes are so fragile they break and burst, covering gloves and secateurs in a gluey, sticky mess. The work is exhausting, the cold debilitating, but the pickers know that time, and the rising sun, is against them.

The ice age

The origins of icewine are shrouded in mystery. Many believe eiswein was ‘invented’ in Germany in the 18th Century, when a winemaker accidentally allowed grapes to remain on the vine until they froze in the first frosts of winter.

There are many techniques for making sweet wines, including adding spirit to the fermenting wine to raise alcohol but retain unfermented sugar, subjecting grapes to Botrytis cinerea (the ‘Noble Rot’ that shrivels the berries and allows water content to evaporate), and drying grapes on mats until they raisin. But icewine is unique in that the grapes should be harvested in near perfect condition, with pure grape flavours unaffected by rot, alcohol or the drying process.

The grapes, shrivelled to little more than bullet-hard raisins, are pressed whilst still frozen in special basket presses with enough pressure to force out the tiny amount of juice the grapes contain, whilst frozen water crystals are left behind. This thick, pure liquid is the raw material for icewine, and now the long, slow fermentation can begin.

The big chill

There are some who have described icewine as “a freak show,” and who question the absolute quality of the wines. This is grape growing on the edge, with more elements of risk, and therefore opportunities for things to go wrong, than any other.

But to taste a truly great icewine is a thrilling experience: the combination of crystal clear fruit, luscious, honeyed sweetness and unctuous texture is set against pristine acidity in knife-edge balance. Whilst several northern European countries make icewines in those years when conditions are right, there is one New World country that has made icewine its own over the past couple of decades, and that country is Canada.

Canada ice

The utterly reliable freezing conditions of the Canadian winter have made icewine a real USP for both British Columbia and, in particular, Ontario. Almost every winery boasts an icewine, and some a whole range of them. Vidal, a hardy French cross, is the staple of the industry, creating luscious, curranty, sweet wines, thick with fruit and with good levels of acidity. But Riesling icewines are the real stars, with their scintillating balance and extra complexity. Even Cabernet Franc is being made as a copper-coloured icewine.

xThese wines are expensive to produce, but they sell for high prices and there is a strong demand for this almost unique style. A few wineries specialise in icewine, none more so than Inniskillin, whose icewine leapt into the consciousness of world wine lovers when the 1989 vintage was awarded the highest award, Le Grand Prix d’Honneur, at Bordeaux’s Vinexpo in 1991.

Winemaker for Inniskillin’s icewines is Karl Kaiser, the original founder of the winery along with Donald Ziraldo. Whilst winemaking for this large company’s other wines is now in the hands of a team of winemakers drawn from across the globe, Kaiser retains his involvement in the wine that is closest to his heart: “Because I am intrigued by the incredibly powerful intensity of the fragrances and flavours of these wines.”

Inniskillin’s icewines are now more widely available thanks to their parent company’s takeover of a UK distributor last year. You will also find a small number of icewines from other high quality Canadian producers like Mission Hill and Cave Springs on the shelves. Given their quality, and the romance and fascination of their story, you can expect to see more and more. The coming of a new ice age?

The wines

See all UK stockists of Canadian Icewine on wine-searcher.

Cave Spring Cellar, Niagara Riesling Icewine 2003
Beautifully clear, limpid nose of honey and quince with floral notes, leading to a thrilling rush of glacial, sweeping lime and honey flavours with a core of precise acidity. 93/100. £29.95, Berry Bros & Rudd

Château de Charmes, Niagara Riesling Icewine 2000
Darkening yellow colour with a flood of apricot and honey. Fantastically rich, full-flavoured palate, with luscious honeyed fruit, a core of lemon, and some herbal nuances. 91/100.

Inniskillin, Niagara Riesling Icewine 2004
This fine wine has a beautiful lemon-meringue-pie nose with a core of honey and lime. Pure and luscious on the palate, it is shot through with tongue-tingling acidity. 94/100. £55.00, The Wine Society

Inniskillin, Niagara Cabernet Franc Icewine 2003
This pale, chestnut-coloured wine has 195g/l of sugar and a nose of delicate rose hip and cherry. Summer fruit compote flavours are married to pepper, nutmeg and good acidity. Fascinating. 91/100.

Mission Hill, Okanagan Reserve Riesling Icewine 2003
Beautifully honeyed lime jelly and quince nose with tangerine notes that flood through onto the palate. Perfect fruit here, and shimmering, sharpening acidity. 93/100. £39.99, Harrods.

Pelee Island, Ontario Vidal Icewine 2003
This is loaded with ripe apricot and nut kernel notes, with touches of mandarin orange. On the palate it has fine acidity and a weight of unctuous, limpid fruit. 92/100. £39.99,

Go to Canada part I: overview plus introductions to the top Ontario estates.

Go to Canada part II: British Columbia plus tasting notes on dozens of wines.