July 17, 2016
Niagara-on-the Lake in Ontario, is said to be home of some of the finest Icewines in the world. This is mainly because Canada fulfills a major Icewine making prerequisite, its famous cold temperatures. I recently had the opportunity to visit a few wineries in Niagara on- the-Lake. While it was quite the sampling experience, time was limited and I was only able to carefully compare a few wines. Among them were the 2006 Vidal Icewine, the 2008 Cabernet Franc, and the 2012 Cabernet Franc Icewines. Without a doubt, the well-balanced 2012 Cabernet Franc Icewine, which was aged in French oak and captured the flavours of orange, honey and strawberry, is my favourite. The sweet, creamy and opulent treasured Icewine results from fermentation of concentrated grape juice after the grapes would have stayed on the vine through autumn, allowing them to dry. The freeze-thaw cycle of winter then further dehydrates them. This intensifies the sugar, acids and other components rendering a flavour that is highly concentrated, making a complex wine with deep, rich nuances. Juices are extracted from the grapes frozen on the vine. It is then pressed while still frozen.
The volume of grape juice extracted for Icewine compared to table wine is almost minuscule, which is perhaps one of the main reasons there is a heavy price tag on one small bottle of Icewine. The yield is less than one-quarter of what would be produced by unfrozen grapes. When thinking about the price there is also the high risk of production to take into consideration. Alcohol in wine is produced by a fermentation process, which converts sugar into alcohol by yeast cells.
In Icewine, that fermentation process is slow and difficult in comparison to table wines because of the higher sugar content found in concentrated grape juice. The grapes are harvested at a negative 8 degrees Celsius (17.6 Fᴼ) or below. The juices are then pressed from the frozen grapes by small hydraulic presses. Since the harvest is frozen, higher pressure is required to extract the juices than is needed for regular season harvests. The fermentation process can take from six weeks to six months before the filtration process begins. Some Icewine is bottled, while some may be left to age in oak barrels. Often times most are left to reveal their natural characters.
The method of Icewine making goes back into Roman times. In A Daily Life Encylcopeda volume 2 by James W. Ermatinger it says that, “to accommodate this change the Romans often left the grapes to ripen on the vine well into autumn so as to concentrate their sugars. Although they did not produce ice-wine, the concept is still the same with leaving the grapes on the vine well into late autumn….” However, it is believed that the first Icewine, called Eiswein by the Germans, was made in Germany in the late 1700s. Though Australia and Germany continued to make Icewine, their winters were not always cold enough to freeze the grapes and produce a healthy harvest. This proved to be a problem until they migrated to Canada where winters were harsher. Because of the blistering cold, British Columbia and Ontario successfully produced Icewine.
Ontario, Canada has earned global acclaim for Icewine production. Vintners Quality Alliance has created the most stringent regulations in the world for its production: it must be naturally produced (no artificial freezing); it must have a minimum Brix (sugar content) of 35 degrees; the alcohol must come from the grapes’ natural sugars; and the harvest must not start before November 15th. The two leading producers of traditional Icewine are Canada and Germany. However, there are producers in the United States, Switzerland and Australia.
Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net