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Icewine – Nobody Does It Better (April 25, 2002)

June 24, 1991, is the day when Canada finally made the grade in the wine world. The venue: Vinexpo. The occasion: the announcement of the winning wines in the biennial competition. Bernard Termain, Chairman of "Challenge Internationale du Vin" announces that a Prix d'Honneur is awarded to Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 1989 – one of only nineteen top prizes granted among 4,100 wines judged. The flamboyant Donald Ziraldo, bachelor, extreme skier, Ferrari driver, squire of beautiful women, phones his partner Karl Kaiser who made the wine. He tells him, "It's like winning the film festival at Cannes and walking away with an Oscar in Hollywood both."

With that victory in Bordeaux, Canada planted its flag on the world wine map.

In one generation a tradition has been established that deserves recognition. It's becoming as Canadian as ice hockey.

In order for grape berries to freeze as hard as marbles – and maintain their frozen state – the mercury must drop to at least minus 8 degrees Celsius and remain there during the pressing. In Germany, these polar temperatures do not occur every year, but they do in Canada, even though producers got a scare during this year's mild winter.

The first attempt at Icewine production in Canada was made in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley in 1973 by the late Walter Hainle. He made the wine for his own consumption. In 1978, his son Tilman was selling that vintage of Okanagan Riesling Icewine at the family winery. In Ontario the credit for the first commercially available Icewine goes to an Austrian, Walter Strehn at Pelee Island Winery, although his initial attempt at allowing his grapes to freeze on the vine brought him into conflict with the law.

In 1983 Strehn netted eight rows of Riesling vines against the birds. Point Pelee is a famous bird sanctuary and Pelee Island in Lake Erie is on their migratory flight path south. The netting proved ineffective against the ravening horde of birds who tried to get at the sugar-rich berries. Some Blue Jays got caught in the netting and a concerned citizen, witnessing the results, reported Stehn to the Department of Natural Resources. Inspectors came down, tore off the netting and charged him with trapping birds out of season – using dried grapes as bait. The winery lost $25,000 worth of grapes but Walter Strehn managed to salvage enough to produce one hundred cases of Icewine that were sold at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario for $12.50 a half bottle. According to John Schreiner in his book, Icewine – The Complete Story, "After little was sold, the LCBO returned it to the winery for a refund. Subsequently, Pelee Island found a new market in the United States and when the Icewine began selling there for more than $100 a bottle the LCBO begged to have it back."

Today, every winery in Ontario makes Icewine from a variety of grapes, including Vidal, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and even Cabernet Franc. Whenever these wines are entered in international competitions they invariably come home with gold medals – a tradition that Inniskillin started over a decade ago.

And how does Canadian Icewine differ from its German counterpart? By trying examples side by side you can understand the quintessential difference between winemaking New World style and winemaking Old World Style. Canadian Icewine by law must achieve higher sugar levels at harvest than any of the German regions and that makes for wines of generally higher alcohol with a broader, fleshier mouth feel. Canadian Icewines taste good at all stages of their development, from their initial fermentation to their ultimate age of around ten years. They lack the delicacy and racy acidity of German Eiswein but they make up for it with their opulent, honeyed sweetness characterised by peachy, apricot and caramel flavours. They are, in effect, a whole new category of dessert wines that tend to sauternes and Tokaji flavours with bottle age.

Not content with producing this "gift of winter" for its own sake, Canadian producers have stretched for new ways to market Icewine that sells for an average $45–$50 a half bottle. Hence the appearance of such products as sparkling Icewine, first produced by Magnotta, which also makes an eau-de-vie from distilled Icewine, Icewine as a dosage for sparkling wine, and Icewine Martinis.




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