Originally made in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein, Canada is now the adopted home of this delectable sweet wine, with 75 percent of the world’s production occurring on the Niagara Peninsula that lies west of Buffalo, NY. The unique climate and geography of this area is perfectly suited for icewine production as, unlike most German and Austrian vineyards, the North American vineyards producing icewine are fairly flat and get cold very reliably each winter. They’re also generally warmer during the growing season, resulting in richer, higher alcohol icewines, (8-13% ABV), than those in Europe.
In Canada, most icewines are made from Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Cabernet Franc varietals, due to their high sugar content and balanced acidity. Icewines made from Riesling tend to be more acidic, with lots of citrus. The wines made from Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc are more tropical and melon-like, while the rosé hued Cabernet Franc’s have some caramel notes alongside plum and cherry fruit.
Making icewine is a daunting and highly regulated task in Canada, where there are very strict guidelines determined by the Vintners Quality Alliance – VQA. These regulations are in place to ensure high quality and are similar to other regulatory systems in such countries as France (AOC), Italy (DOC), and Germany (QmP). Some of the basic regulations are:
• The harvest must begin after November 15
• All grapes must be harvested by hand
• Icewine must be produced exclusively from grapes that have been harvested, naturally frozen on the vine, and pressed in a continuous process while the air temperature is -8° Celsius (17.6°F) or lower. (Icewine grapes are often harvested during the night to guarantee a temperature below -8° Celsius).
• Icewine must be made of grapes pressed within the recognized Viticultural Area in which the grapes were grown and meet the requirements of a varietal wine.
• The grapes, juice, must or wine may not be artificially refrigerated at any point in the manufacturing process, except for tank cooling during fermentation and/or during cold stabilization prior to bottling.
Strict adherence to these regulations is what makes these wines so desirable, and also very expensive. Pressing the grapes in a frozen state extracts a syrup-like nectar, with the water particles remaining in the press as ice crystals. Yields average only 25-30 gallons of highly concentrated juice per ton of grapes, as opposed to typical yields of 150 gallons per ton of fresh grapes. Because of the extremely high sugar content, fermentation occurs very slowly, often taking several months.
When finished, an icewine will taste intensely sweet and flavorful during the initial mouth sensation. However, icewines typically finish with a crisp and clean dryness, due to their high acidity levels. For pairing options, savory cheeses, custards and fruit-based sweets work very well, but many prefer icewine as a stand-alone dessert.
If you are looking to try these wonderful wines, be prepared to pay quite a bit more then you would for your average dessert wine or port. Due to the labor-intense production requirements and the extremely low yields, costs for some of the better known wines can exceed $100 for a half-bottle. If this is out of your budget range, you may want to try this week’s recommended wine, King Estate’s Vin Glace. Made from Oregon Pinot Gris grapes, this wine is made in the same method as icewine, with the exception that the grapes have been mechanically frozen and not left hanging frozen on the vine.
King Estate Vin de Glacé Pinot Gris Dessert Wine Oregon 2005
“The color of this wine is a very nice honey amber, reminiscent of an early harvest moon. The first notes I pick up in the nose are of a fresh honeycomb and perfectly ripe pear, which carry over to the palate. As this dessert wine opens up, there is some hints of floral and toffee. The mid-palate is very juicy but not cloying, giving way to a bit of tartness on the finish that invites another sip. This would be a very nice pairing with a large variety of cheeses of which I think some different versions of Wisconsin gouda come to mind. From the Holland Family Farms, the aged gouda has a nice nuttiness that would bring out the soft fruit notes. A fenugreek seed version we have would add some maple tones that would match pleasantly with the wine. Also, a honey clove gouda, with a hint of herbal notes would mirror well with the honey and floral hints. I would say that some salted, roasted nuts, or a spicy pumpkin seed brittle or even the Dunbarton cheddar blue would also make nice accompaniments.”
~ Janice Thomas, The Savory Spoon Cooking School (Ellison Bay, WI)
Appearance: A honey amber
Aroma: Fresh honeycomb and ripe pear
Flavors: Toffee, apricot and pear with honey coming through as well
Finishing Notes: Juicy start that changes to a tart apple and invites another sip
Where to Buy: Main Street Market and Madison Avenue Wine Shop
Where to Try: The Mission Grille and T. Ashwell’s