Icewine: Canada's Gift of Winter to the World (February 13, 2014)
Icewine is the one good thing about Canadian winters. Of all the wines made in Canada, the one the world knows best is Icewine. Within fifteen years this sweet dessert wine has become an international celebrity, an icon product that is as Canadian as the Mounties, Wayne Gretzky, and the maple leaf. It appears on the exclusive wine lists of the world's best restaurants, and you can now buy it in India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing, New York City, London, Rome, and Paris. It's the luxury gift that everyone loves to give and to receive. And like all desirable luxury goods, it is being counterfeited on an unprecedented scale. The majority of the phony products end up on wine shelves in Pacific Rim countries.
The kudos for having produced the first Icewine in Canada goes to Walter Hainle, a former textile salesman from Hamburg who immigrated to British Columbia in 1970. In 1973 Hainle made about 40 litres of Icewine from frozen grapes he had purchased from a local grower in the Okanagan Valley, a tradition he continued until his death in 1995. When he opened his own winery in 1988, one of the first products on the shelf was the 1978 vintage of Okanagan Riesling Icewine. It was not the vinifera Riesling as we know it but Okanagan Riesling, a rather insipid grape of dubious origin that was widely planted in the 1960s and 1970s and has virtually disappeared from the Okanagan since the BC pull-out program of 1989.
The very first attempts at producing Icewine on a commercial basis in Ontario were sabotaged by bird and man. In 1983 Inniskillin lost its entire crop to the birds the day before picking was scheduled. That same year winemaker Walter Strehn at Pelee Island Vineyards had taken the precaution of netting his vines to protect them from the feathered frenzy, because his vineyard was in the direct flight path of migrating birds from the Point Pelee sanctuary. Some persistent Blue Jays, however, managed to break through his nets and were trapped in the mesh. A passing bird fancier reported him to the Ministry of Natural Resources and officials descended on the vineyard and tore off the netting. Walter Strehn not only lost $25,000 worth of Riesling and Vidal grapes to the rapacious flock but was charged with trapping birds out of season and using the dried grapes as bait! Happily, the case was dropped and, with the grapes that were left, Walter managed to make fifty cases of
Vidal Icewine 1983, which he labelled in the German designation as Beerenauslese Eiswein. He sold the wine to the LCBO, which set a retail price of $12.50 a half bottle. The consuming public was not familiar with this wine style and bought very little, so the LCBO returned the majority of bottles and demanded a refund. Pelee Island found a more willing market in the United States, where the product sold for $100 a bottle. The LCBO then begged to have it back!
Icewine is made by allowing the grapes to hang on the vine until they freeze naturally. Since the juice is rich in sugar, the temperature has to drop well below freezing and stay there long enough for the bunches to be harvested and pressed while still in their frozen state. A thaw will cause the ice to melt and the water will dilute the sugars and acids.
A grape berry contains roughly 80 percent water and, if the berries are frozen solid and then pressed, the water will be remain in the skins as shards of ice, allowing small amounts of concentrated juice to flow out. All elements of the juice are concentrated including flavour, sugar and acidity. The juice from Icewine grapes is about one-fifth the amount you would normally get if you pressed unfrozen grapes. To put it another way, a vine will normally produce sufficient grapes to make a bottle of wine; but frozen grapes would produce only one glass of Icewine. The harvesting of Icewine is truly an act of masochism for the pickers because it's usually done in the early morning hours before the sun is up. Fermenting the sugar-rich juice in wine can take months, and special hard-working yeast is required. The final alcohol level can vary from 9 percent to 13 percent depending on how much residual sugar is left in the wine.
Canadian Icewine first gained global attention at Vinexpo in 1991. Donald Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin Wines, entered his Vidal Icewine 1989 in the biennial wine fair's Challenge Internationale du Vin competition in Bordeaux. His wine won the Grand Prix d'honneur, one of only nineteen such awards for the 4,100 wines submitted by forty countries. The effect was immediate both at home and abroad. Winemakers in Ontario and British Columbia began to set aside portions of their vineyards for netting to produce Icewine; and overseas buyers began to take an interest in the product. Canadian Icewine became an instant cult wine selling for up to $250 a half-bottle in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.