Wine of the Month: Canada's IcewineThursday, November 19, 2020
What is Icewine or Eiswein?
When you hear icewine/ice wine, or see the German spelling Eiswein, think dessert wine. This type of wine is known more so for its Canadian connection. Ice wine is just about as sweet as wine will get because the grapes used in its production were at one point naturally frozen while still on the grapevine.
The first production of icewine was in Rome, as this was a typical style of wine produced by the Romans. Roman literature noted that certain grape varieties were not harvested before the first frost had occurred (Piny The Elder, AD 23-79). Instructions to make this style of wine read: “Grapes should be left on the vine until November or until they were stiff with frost.” (Martial, the poet). Today, the method seems to have been forgotten, except for wine from Chiomonte in the Val di Susa, popular in Roman times and still producing one of Italy's few ice wines. Germany's Eiswein was “discovered” in 1794 in Franconia when a freak frost froze the grapes. Peasant farmers, not wanting to lose their grapes, pressed them anyway and were delighted with the resulting sweet wine. Since then, German producers have made Eiswein whenever the weather permits. Germany and Canada are the world's largest producers of ice wines, and about 75% of the ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario. However, ice wine is also made in European countries where frosts can be guaranteed.
As we have established, Canada did not invent icewine but in the space of a couple of decades it has become the Canadian product that is most sought after by the international wine community. In fact, icewine is to Canada what Canada is to the Mounties and maple syrup. But how is it made? Unlike the grapes for dry table wines that are harvested in September or October, icewine grapes are left to hang on the vine until they freeze as hard as marbles. In Canada, this usually occurs around Christmastime. 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. According to Canadian wine law, grapes designated for icewine cannot be picked until the mercury drops to at least -8°C (17° Fahrenheit), although colder temperatures make for a better product. The sugar level of the grapes at the time of harvest must reach a reading of at least 35 Brix (one degree Brix is equal to 1 gram of grape sugar); otherwise they can only be designated as Special Select Late Harvest or Select Late Harvest wines. The bunches must also be attached to the vine until they are harvested. A grape berry contains roughly 80 per cent water and, when the frozen berries are pressed, the water remains in the skins as shards of ice, allowing small amounts of concentrated juice to flow slowly out. 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 produce enough grapes to make one bottle of wine; but frozen grapes will produce a merely one glass of icewine.
The grapes used to make icewine are unaffected by noble rot and fermented slowly. Icewines retain many primary characteristics which set them apart from their botryatised (some sweet wines are made using rotting grapes, but icewine is not made this way) counterparts. It is luscious, intensely flavoured, with aromas and flavours of ripe tropical fruits like lychee and pineapple when made with white grapes, although wines made with red varieties can give more concentrated strawberry flavours. Originally, Canadian icewine was made only from either Vidal or Riesling grapes but with experience, winemakers have added other varietals for its production.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Pillitteri makes 13 different icewines and claims to be the world's largest estate winery currently making this product. Other vintners have found novel ways to manipulate icewine by ageing it in oak or making it as a sparkling wine or using icewine as a dosage (sweetening agent) in sparkling wine.
But to Ontario's Inniskillin winery goes the credit of having created the international market for Canadian icewine. Inniskillin's 1989 Vidal Icewine won the coveted Prix d'honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux in 1991 — one of 15 such prizes judged from thousands of international entries. This victory created global interest in Canadian wine and Inniskillin icewine became a luxury brand, creating a halo effect for other Canadian wines. Due to the limitation of icewine production, the product commands a higher price than your usual table wines.
Finding a sweet wine to complement rich foods, such as foie gras, pâté, or a meat such as duck, can often be tricky. These types of food are higher in fat, and therefore the dish does not give up much room to the sugars present in a lot of sweeter wines. However, icewine isn't just a sweet wine. Icewine has a welcome amount of acidity in it. This complexity allows it to complement rich food very well.
It may seem counter-intuitive to add a sweet wine to your dessert course, but icewine pairs exceedingly well with sweeter dishes. Here are a few suggestions:
• Vidal icewine pairs quite well with a wide range of fruit-based desserts, whether you are serving a banana pudding, a peach cobbler, or a pineapple upside-down cake.
• Riesling icewine is also prefect with citrus, pineapple, honeydew, and kiwi.
• Cabernet Franc icewine complements berry-centred desserts whether you are working with strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries. Or, if you are serving a rich dessert like chocolate, custard, or a crème brûlée, look for a Cabernet Franc icewine so that the wine and the creamy richness of your dish won't be in competition with one another.
Now that we are ready for the coolest season, go find an icewine and celebrate responsibly. Thank you @islandgurlaya for your feedback and suggestion to cover this very fascinating wine. Cheers!
Readers' Grapevine Club: If you are new to wines and want to join us on our wine discovery, then this is for you. On the third Thursday of each month, I will highlight your feedback on our grape variety/vine of the month. For December, we give thanks and celebrate life as we close 2020 with Champagne!
Extraordinary wonder and joy are interwoven through ordinary life; seek them relentlessly. Please share with me your wines, spirits and cocktail experiences or comments on the above article at email@example.com, or follow me on IG @debbiansm #barnoneja.
Dr Debbian Spence-Minott
An Alumna of the US Sommelier Association
CEO of the Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines
President, Jamaica Union of Bartenders and Mixologists (JUBAM) Limited