The Crystalline Miracle of Niagara Icewine
Put ‘wine’ and ‘Canada’ in the same sentence and you are liable to draw a frozen stare from most wine drinkers. Add the word ‘ice’ and that look thaws into a glimmer of excitement. Since Inniskillin earned the Prix d’Honneur for its 1989 Vidal Blanc Icewine at the Olympiade du Vin at VinExpo in 1991 the world has been fascinated with the idea of Canadian wine, especially icewines from the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario province (it is also made in British Columbia). Inniskillin’s success created an industry, prompting scores of other Canadian wineries, as well as others across the southern border in the New York State, to make some of some of the world’s most distinctive wines. Bursting with pure, fresh fruit flavors, a luscious sweetness and searing, cleansing acidity, icewine seems almost a crystalline miracle.
The basic idea behind icewine (as it is called, by law, in Canada, ice wine in the United States, eiswein in German, vin de glace in Luxembourg) is simple. It is wine made from frozen grapes. Canadian, European Union, and US law require that grapes be frozen on the vine. Grapes are picked and pressed while frozen, drawing an extract rich in sugars, acids, and flavors while leaving behind the still frozen water. The solids are discarded and the must is fermented more or less as other wine, creating a nectar that is enticingly fragrant and sweet.
Eiswein is thought to date to 1794, when a German winemaker in Franconia was unable to harvest his grapes before the first freeze of the season. He picked and pressed the grapes as they were. While only a fraction of the juice one normally gets expect was extracted, the results showed a concentration of flavors not previously seen. For almost 150 years thereafter, few made the product, noting the risks from weather or hungry animals of leaving grapes on the vine so long and the fact the final yield would a tenth that of normal wines. The invention of more powerful presses (it requires a lot of pressure to squeeze a grape as hard as a stone) and protective plastic netting for vines in the 1960s made it possible to produce eiswein at viable, commercial levels. Even with technology, the production of eiswein/icewine/ice wine, has always depended on the weather. It just has to get really, really cold.
Until the 1980s eiswein production was limited mostly to German and Austrian wine producers fortunate enough to have the right conditions and the proper equipment. And, even when it was made, it was a precious, expensive commodity, often commanding the equivalent of over $100 US for a 375ml bottle.
In the early 1980’s, German and Austrian winemakers working in Canada realized that they might have advantages their former countrymen lacked: consistently low temperatures year after year. Until that point, Canadian vintners bemoaned the limits of a difficult climate that forced them to plant winter-hardy American hybrids not to the tastes of most wine connoisseurs. One aromatic hybrid, however, the thick skinned Vidal Blanc, was thought to have good potential for icewine. This suspicion was confirmed in trials in 1983 and in 1984 that produced Vidal icewines that were unctuous, aromatic, full of yellow fruit flavors and cleansing acidity. While locally popular, the wines didn’t achieve international renown until Donald Ziraldo of Inniskillin walked home with gold medals from Vinexpo 1991. The craze for Canadian icewine began. Today, Canada is world’s largest, most consistent icewine producer.
For a “cold climate” wine region, the location of the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario’s most important wine region and home to Inniskillin and other important producers, is unusual. On a map, it is at the 43⁰N parallel, the same as Corsica, and the northern portion of California. Yet, between late autumn and early spring, bitter Arctic winds bring temperatures that average +1.7⁰C on the high end and -5.7⁰ C on the low. These are just averages. In reality Temperatures would be even colder if not for the unique combination of vast and deep Lake Ontario that on the peninsula’s northern shore, and the position of the Niagara Escarpment , a ridge with a vertical rise of about 100 meters from the sloped vineyards below. Heat stored by the lake’s waters in summer tames frigid winter winds as they flow from the north. These winds crash against the Escarpment, and circulate back across the peninsula, moderating winter temperatures over vineyards. Lake Erie, which borders the peninsula to the south, moderates conditions somewhat, too, though not to the same extent.
The trick for any winemaker in such conditions is to get his grapes ripe. The trick for any maker of icewine is to get his grapes ripe, then get them cold enough to be frozen solid on the vine before they are damaged for any number of reasons, and still protect those vines from potentially deadly temperatures. Ideal conditions for this end are soils that remain relatively warm in winter due to a high proportion of clay, and a topography that quickly funnels cold air away. As cold air sinks, vines in the bottom of a slope on a cold night are particularly susceptible to frost damage. Situated on the south shore of Lake Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment, one of two subregions of the Niagara Peninsula VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance system – akin to the French AOC system) provides these idea conditions. The other, Niagara-on-the-Lake, facing the Niagara River to its east and Lake Ontario to its north, offers different advantages. Between the two are ten sub appellations with varying slopes and clay-heavy, glacier-based soil types.
Similar to European regulations, the Canada’s appellation regulators, the VQA has certain requirements before a wine can be called “icewine.” Harvests cannot begin before November 15, and can only take place when temperatures dip to below -8⁰C (17⁰F) over a period of at least four hours. The “sweet spot” for production, however is between -10⁰C and -12⁰C. Moreover, the finished wine must be at least 35⁰ Brix (19.6 Baumé) and have a minimum of 125 g/litre residual sugar, though 180 to 220 g/litre is the norm. [In contrast, Germany requires temperatures of at least -7⁰C (19⁰F), and must levels equivalent of 26⁰-29.5⁰ Brix (14.4-16.4 Baumé) on the Oeschle scale; In Austria, the standard is 28.5⁰ Brix (15.8 Baumé)]
Vidal Blanc remains hegemonic in Ontario icewine, composing 65% of the total production of 880 hectalitres in 2011 (compared to 200,300 hl of still table wine), but more confident wine growers have increasingly planted noble, vitis vinifera grapes in the past two decades. Among whites, Riesling is most esteemed, and Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer have become increasingly important. Among red grapes, Cabernet Franc is the most prominent, though, increasingly, other varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and even Syrah are being grown. The vast majority of vinifera production in the region is used for dry table wines. Indeed, Niagara wine producers like to speak about the advantages of cool climate viticulture on their dry wines more than their famed icewine. Indeed, while increasing demand for icewine, especially from Asian consumers (some visitor signs at Inniskillin winery are written in Japanese) has encouraged producers to expand its production, icewine remains a special, niche product.
No one has broadened the palate of icewine as much as Joseph DeMaria, who makes 24 grape varieties, red and white, under his Royal DeMaria label. These include delicate Pinots Noir and Gris, Gamay, and Mediterranean grapes like Muscat d’Ottonel, Viognier and Syrah. DeMaria’s story is unusual. While he owned vineyards in the Niagara Escarpment he wasn’t a trained winemaker. An error during his first attempt to make icewine in 1998 serendipitously resulted in an especially aromatic wine that more delicate in flavor and mouthfeel than the norm. Closely guarding his secret DeMaria has made subsequent vintages in the same manner. His wines have won dozens of awards, including five consecutive gold medals at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in Burgundy. The latter distinction, plus robust marketing, has pushed the price for several of its wines to thousands of dollars per 375ml bottle. More astounding is the $250,000 CND now asked for a 375ml bottle 2000 Chardonnay Icewine. Where does he sell the wines? Overwhelmingly, in Asia, mostly to Hong Kong, but mainland China, too. DeMaria readily admits that the high prices he commands for his wines allow him to take risks that others probably cannot. But, he also attributes his unique microclimate on the Beamsville Bench subappellation that holds off dangerous temperatures better than some of his neighbors. “Even in 2005, our coldest season yet, when others lost vines [due to cold], I came out without any trouble.”
Microclimate is not the only factor. Vines must be tough with strong stock. The quality of the graft can make the difference between protecting a vine from frost or acting as a conduit for its demise. Grapes must be hardy, too. Skins have to be thick enough to survive long exposure to the elements and stems must be strong enough to keep grapes on vines during wind, rain or hail, as vines hibernate for the winter. And, hungry animals, especially birds have to be kept away. Winegrowers typically wrap plastic netting around vines to do just that.
The ice wine industry across the border in the United States remains less developed than in Canada. One reason is that ideal ice wine regions near Lakes Ontario or Eire have far fewer wineries, about three dozen versus nearly 200 on the Canadian side. New York’s well-developed Finger Lakes region, located a couple of hours from the Lake Ontario, is not generally ideal for ice wine. Some places get cold enough a few years in a decade, but generally not. One winery that made ice wine in the past but probably no longer is Hermann J. Wiemer, famous for its superb Rieslings. “For us, it’s not that fun,” remarks co-owner Oskar Bynke. “Maybe we don’t have the right equipment…we make everything on such a small scale that, when we do it, we have to figure it all out from scratch every time.” Bynke goes on to note that the regulations in the US are not nearly as stringent as in Canada or Europe. Though ice wine must be made from grapes frozen on the vine, iced wine can be made via cryoextraction, a process where grapes are picked before the frost, tossed into a freezer, and pressed according to need. A number of wineries do that, often to fine results, but the product isn’t the same. Bynke is not sure that most consumers can tell the difference in anything except the lower prices charged for such wines, closer to $20 US for half bottles of “freezer” wine versus $45-60 US for the real deal in Canada or the US (Royal DeMaria notwithstanding). While most US producers of “ice wine” adhere, in principle to Canadian regulations for maximum temperatures before harvest, but one has to rely on their word rather than the weight of the law. Generally speaking, the American wines seem less focused than the Canadians, but there are some interesting ones, too, and the results are delicious regardless.
Some producers to look for:
Niagara Peninsula, Canada
Cave Springs, Coyote’s Run Estate Winery, Equifera, Henry of Pelham, Inniskillin, Konzelmann Estate Winery, Mike Vidal Weir, Pillitteri Estates, Reif Estate Winery, Royal Demaria, Stratus Vineyards, Vineland, Ziraldo Estates
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, Casa Larga, Heron Hill, Hunt Country, Johnson Estate, Lamoreaux Landing , Leonard Oakes, Schulze, 21 Brix
By Jamal Rayyis
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