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Niagara Icewine — The Best Kept Secret Amongst European Wine Enthusiasts

by Hrayr Berberoglu

One of the best-kept secrets in the world of fine wines is Canadian Icewine in general and Niagara Peninsula Icewine in particular. Icewine or eiswein, as Germans spell it, and invented this nectar of the gods in the 18th century by a happy accident

Icewine is produced from ripe grapes left on the vine well past the regular harvest and into the winter. When subzero temperatures start freezing the grapes, most of the water turns solid, leaving the sweet, fructose-laden and flavourful centre concentrated with aromas. For this phenomenon to occur, the temperature must be -8°C for at least 24 hours. Meanwhile ravenous birds attack these sweet ”nuggets” as do hungry bears. If the vines are left unprotected, the whole crop may be lost in a matter of minutes.

Nowadays, most if not all growers, net the rows of vines to minimize losses. Pickers harvest Icewine grapes at freezing (-8°C) temperatures before sunrise, and winemakers basket-press them immediately to ensure satisfactory results.

The fermentation is slow due to extremely high sugar levels (the fruit must be picked at a minimum of 35 Brix), requires specially cultivated yeasts, and must be monitored constantly to ensure acceptable quality. For Icewine, most Ontario winemakers prefer Vidal, due to its thick skin and resistance to cracking in subzero temperatures. The thin-skinned Riesling yields far superior results but is prone to cracking and ripens much later than Vidal.

Now, Niagara wineries specializing in Icewine (one in particular, Royal de Maria, produces only Icewine) also use Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Merlot, and Kerner. Approximately one kilogram of grapes (the yield of a well pruned vine) is needed to produce one bottle of dry wine, but the juice of the same quantity of fruit yields only 120—200 ml of Icewine.

True Icewine has always been expensive and will remain so in the near future.

The unctuous juice is allowed to settle for three to four days, and then clarified.The must ferments slowly due to the high sugar content and specially cultivated yeasts must be used to get the process going. By nature, Icewine is sweet, but when well made, this nectar smells of dried fruits, apricots and honey, and finishes with a long, refreshing aftertaste.

A well-made Icewine is always pleasantly sweet, well balanced never cloying. If the must ferments in stainless steel tanks the wine possesses a more fruity character as opposed to those barrel-fermented and ageing that induce more dried fruit aromas.

Sparkling Icewine, an invention of Ontario-based Magnotta Winery, enjoys a unique texture profile combining sweetness fruitiness and effervescence, rendering it light.

The discovery of Icewine in 1794 in Franconia, Germany was accidental, like many other gastronomic delights. In that year a freak cold spell froze vineyards prior to harvest and to avert ruin, winemakers tried to press juice from the frozen grapes. They were ecstatic and surprised when the wine was ready.

It was not until middle of the last century in Rheingau, Germany, that wine growers made conscious efforts to produce Icewine on a consistent basis and in commercially viable quantities. They quickly discovered that it was impossible to produce Icewine every year, For the production of Icewine, the vineyards need to frieze for several days to ensure the berries remain frozen during picking and pressing. If the grapes thaw at any point during the harvest, the sugary juice is diluted and the wines ruined. The winter climate of Germany simply did not afford an annual Icewine harvest. It was a gift of the nature and occurred rarely (every three or four years on the average).

Canada’s Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is an ideal location for the production of Icewine. Niagara’s winters are much harsher than those of Germany, but this area’s growing season enjoys a higher number of sunshine hours, peak temperatures during the vine’s most active vegetative growth in July, and temperature fluctuations during autumn. These climatic conditions produce grapes with higher sugar reading than in Germany. In Canada Walter Hainle, a German immigrant and vigneron in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley was the first to produce an Icewine (in 1973) similar to those he remembered tasting in his youth.

Soon J. Pohorly, the founder of Newark Winery, now Hillebrand, and K. Kaiser the co-founder and winemaker of Inniskillin started experimenting successfully with fruit available to them Ever since, many prestigious international and domestic gold medals have been awarded to Niagara wineries for their outstanding Icewines. In the last few years British Columbia wineries have also been able to wine prestigious international awards.

Pacific Rim countries proved to be excellent and appreciative markets, mainly due to the efforts of Donald Ziraldo the other co-founder of Inniskillin, for this exquisite and refined wine. In 2001, the Canadian government was able to sign an agreement with EU opening a huge potential market. To date results are inconclusive, but the future looks bright.

Icewine can be cellared for a number of years pending on vintage quality. It must be consumed cold (6°C) and ideally on its own. Those who like desserts can pair Icewine with fruit based desserts. A specially designed glass by Riedel glass manufacturing in Austria enhances both the appreciation of aromatic components and taste significantly.

Icewine is truly a nectar of the gods and should be appreciated by all who enjoy the finer things of life.

The following Ontario icewines are highly recommended (some are available in LCBO stores, others only at winery stores):

Royal De Maria Pinot Gris 2000
Royal de Maria Gewurztraminer 2000
Royal De Maria Cabernet Franc 2000
Pillitteri Gewurztraminer 2000
Stoney Ridge Gewurztraminer
Magnotta Vidal 2000
Magnotta Sparkling Icewine 2000
Reif Riesling 2000
Vineland Estates Vidal 2000
Cave Spring Cellars Riesling 1999
Inniskillin Cabernet Franc 1999
Thirty Bench Riesling 1999
Collio Vidal 1999

NOTE: In Canada ice wine is spelled Icewine and is a trademarked noun proof.

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Niagara Icewine — The Best Kept Secret Amongst European Wine Enthusiasts

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