Canada’s Liquid Gold
The wine that came in from the cold
Canadian Ice Wine combines the sweetness of lusciously ripe fruit with a silver edge of acidity that’s as crisp as the winter wind. It’s a cold weather elixir! Despite its modern association with Canada, Ice Wine was accidentally discovered in Germany in 1794. When vintners were preparing for the harvest one season, an unexpected early frost froze the grapes on the vine. The vintners pressed them anyway. They were delighted to learn that the resulting wine was not only drinkable, but exceptionally sweet and delicious, thanks to the concentration of sugar in the frozen dehydrated grapes.
Climates with erratic winter freezes are ideal for Ice Wine. Germany and Austria can produce Eiswein, but Canada has surpassed them because of consistently colder weather. Canadian Ice Wine was first recognized in international competition when Niagara’s Inniskillin Wine Estates won France’s Grand Prix d’Honneur in 1991. This entry beat more than four thousand of the world’s best wines.
Most Ice Wine is made from the vidal grape. This variety ripens late and has a thick skin that can withstand rot, disease and the freeze-thaw cycles. Vidal grapes cling stubbornly to their stalks despite wind and snow. The fruit becomes intensely aromatic and flavorful. The high acidity balances the sweetness in the finished wine.
Some vintners use Riesling grapes to make Ice Wine. Although they’re not as hardy as Vidal, the Riesling grapes have more vibrant acidity. This brand is considered more elegant, balanced and long-lived. Several wineries, including Innsikillin, Magnotta and Pilliteri Estates, make sparkling ice wines as well. These blend refreshing fruit flavors with palate-cleansing acidity and an effervescence that softens the sweetness.
Canada’s first Ice Wine was made in 1973, and sales are now over $45 million a year. Seventy-five Ontario wineries produce 90% of the nation’s Ice Wine. The rest is produced in British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Unlike most standard wines, sold in 750 ml bottles, Ice Wine comes in 375 ml half bottles. They sell for around $50. In Japan, where the wine is considered a rare luxury, the price can go as high as $250. The sales of Ice Wine account for less than 5 percent of Canada’s annual $1 billion wine industry. This figure still represents more than half of Canadian exports.
Making Ice Wine is a difficult, risky business that’s not a pretty. Rows of brown shriveled marbles hang from brittle, leafless vines. As the grapes hang, they develop concentrated fruit flavors. A January harvest can result in a crop loss of as much as 60 percent compared to the fall. The grapes risk another 10 percent drop each week past mid-January. The wine laws require that grapes be picked and pressed at a temperature of 8oC or colder. That’s why grapes are typically picked at night so that the concentrated winter nectar isn’t diluted by melting.
What should Ice Wine taste like? A good Ice Wine warms you like a crackling fire when you come in from the cold on a winter’s day. The rich, viscous texture seeps over your tongue, coats it and fills your mouth with an incoming tide of pleasure. The lovely tension between acidity and sweetness adds a sensual experience. Classic Vidal Ice Wines deliver a delicious sensory overload. They utilize fat, luscious notes of tropical tree fruit, such as apricot, mango, peach, lychee, clementines, honeysuckle, jasmine, baked apple, quince, pineapple, pear and melons. Riesling wines, with their sharper edge of acidity, have more mineral and citrus aromas such as: orange blossom, mandarin, and tangerine—all suspended in a gossamer haze of sweetness.
Ice Wine doe not need to be aged to enjoy its fresh fruit flavors. In fact, many producers recommend drinking their wine before they’re bottled for four years. After a decade, Ice Wines turn amber, and their fresh fruit flavors take on more honeyed, nutty aromas.
Serve Ice Wine chilled. An hour or two in the fridge will allow it to reach the ideal drinking temperature of 45oF-50oF. Serve it is at the end of the meal when most people already feel full. A half bottle will serve six to eight people with about two ounces apiece. The wine is so sweet that a little goes a long way.
You can serve Ice Wine alongside any of the classic first-course matches for sauternes, such as paté or pan-seared foie gras. Some Ice Wine food combinations glide together as smoothly as a new pair of skates over a freshly frozen lake. Try it with fruity desserts like cobblers, crisps, strudels, tarts, flans and pies made from peaches, pears, kiwis or apples. Pair it with fresh figs drizzled with cream, chocolate-dipped strawberries or nutty desserts such as biscotti, almond-flour pound cake or an exotic dacquoise.