The holidays are a time for family and celebration, an opportunity to reflect on the past year’s memories and share laughs by the fireplace. The nightcap is always bittersweet, but this year why not make it a little sweeter with icewine – a dessert wine fit for the season.
Icewine can appear somewhat strange to the average observer. It always comes in a smaller bottle, tends to be on the pricier side, and has a distinctive taste when compared to other more traditional sweet wines like Sauternes. What explains these differences?
A bit of history
Icewine has a long history, with some reports dating it as far back as the Roman period. Authors and poets wrote of frosty pickings, and while this may refer to wines made from dry grapes, there are regions today (previously under Roman control) that make some of the finest icewine in the world, which perhaps indicates a link back to the Romans.
Post-Roman period, icewine can be traced back to German production in the late-1700s to mid-1800s. Harsh winters made outdoor work unfavourable, forcing winemakers to leave frozen grapes on vines (which benefitted animals due to food scarcity). It was soon discovered that the grapes, when frozen, would produce a highly concentrated sweet juice. Thus, icewine – or as the Germans would say Eiswein – was officially born.
Despite its “discovery,” icewine remained a rare vintage for a century and a half. Technological advancements moved icewine from a rare by-product of harsh winters, to a popular German staple that spread internationally. Regrettably, climate change caused icewine production to dwindle – a trend likely to continue well into the future.
How it’s made
Icewine production falls on the riskier end of winemaking. Grapes are covered by nets during the winter months (in case birds want a taste) and left untouched by human hands. As they dangle from the vines, the grapes partially freeze – in an ideal scenario the water inside the grapes freeze while the sugars and other dissolved solids remain chilly but unfrozen. This accounts for icewine’s highly concentrated sweetness, but also explains why overexposure to winter elements could spell disaster.
Temperatures during the key harvest period need constant monitoring because a small dip could wipe out entire crops. Conversely, higher-than-ideal temperatures lead to issues as well, since unfrozen grapes hanging from vines will rot, causing entire crops to go to waste.
When temperatures reach the -9 to -13°C range, the grapes are ready for harvesting. Picking is done quickly, either by labourers or machines, to salvage as many usable grapes for winemaking. Low yields are common due to: variable wind conditions, birds penetrating the nets, and freezing. Winemakers can expect yields to be as low as 5%.
After harvesting, grapes are pressed in their frozen state to extract a tiny amount of their sweet, yet concentrated, juice. High acidity levels present in cooler climate grapes balance the sweetness, making the juice truly unique. Sediment is cleared from the juice before it is treated with strong yeast. Fermentation can span weeks and even months, stopping once alcohol levels reach 10-12%.
Common grapes used for icewine include: Riesling (considered by many as the best), Vidal, Cabernet Franc, Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Ehrenfelser, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
As one would imagine, icewine is exclusive to cooler climate regions. Germany boasts a range of high-quality ice wines, which also happen to be some of the world’s priciest. Rare varieties are made in France’s Alsace region – the rest of France is warmer and hence more favourable to other types of wine. Icewine production is found throughout Europe, including Denmark, Austria, Italy, Moldova, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Outside of Europe, both Japan and the United States produce icewine harvests. Production is limited in Japan, while Michigan accounts for the majority of United States’ icewine.
Last but certainly not least: Canada. All of Canada’s wine regions produce icewine, however the most significant are British Columbia and Ontario. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is world-renowned for its icewine, a testament to climate versatility. Strict VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) guidelines stipulate that icewine must be harvested at -8°C or lower, when the grapes have ripened to ultra-sweet levels (of 32 Brix which is a sugar measurement), and that no added sweetener or refrigeration may be used. Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula is another award-winning ice wine region, subject to the same VQA guidelines as its Canadian cousin. Vidal is a popular grape harvested for ice wine in the region, as are Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
Icewine for the holidays
Snuggle up by the fire or with family and toast to the year passed, and the even better one ahead. Here at newdistrict.ca, we have B.C.’s best wines, delivered to you from vineyard to table. Icewine is a B.C. speciality, and we embrace our strong winemaking heritage. Try out these delicious dessert wines today, and remember to have a safe and enjoyable holiday season.