Winter isn’t known as a time of harvest. But for wine lovers, a cold climate does bring one mid-winter bounty: the sweet, golden tipple known as icewine.
“We are blessed with cold weather in Canada,” says Donald Ziraldo, co-founder and president of award-winning icewine producer Inniskillin Wines.
That cold is what gives icewine its distinctive concentration and balance of sweetness and acidity. The grapes are left on the vines throughout fall and into the winter. During that time, they freeze and thaw naturally on the vine. This process causes the grapes to lose moisture, and concentrates the acids and sugars.
The grapes must be harvested frozen, at a maximum temperature of –8 C.
“We like –10 C, to make sure the grapes are completely frozen,” Ziraldo says.
The harvest is done by hand, and often at night to ensure colder temperatures. The grapes are then crushed and pressed while frozen. Because the water contained in the grapes is frozen, only the concentrated juice is pressed out. This process yields only a small fraction of the juice that the grapes would produce if harvested and pressed normally.
“The juice is only 5% to 10% of normal yield,” Ziraldo says. “That’s why it’s so expensive.”
It is also a difficult, labour-intensive process that can be fraught with risk. A crop left on the vine into the winter can fall prey to bad weather, rot or to hungry birds and animals.
“It’s important that people understand the high risk,” Ziraldo says. “It’s an expensive proposition, but you can taste it in the concentration.”
Icewine was first made in Germany in the mid-1700s, and was first made in Ontario in the mid-1980s. Since then, Ontario has become one of the best-known producers of icewine in the world, and the biggest producer in Canada. Ziraldo says Canada’s reputation for frosty winters may help promote this prized export internationally.
“Canada is cold,” he says. “People can relate to it psychologically.”
Icewine is traditionally made from Riesling or vidal grapes.
“There is also a red ice wine, made from Cabernet Franc grapes,” Ziraldo says. This wine is very rare, as it is expensive and difficult to make.
“It’s a great valentine gift,” he says, adding that it goes beautifully with very dark chocolate.
Riesling icewines have the classic characteristics of that grape, Ziraldo says: white fruit notes, such as pear, and petrol in its nose as it ages. Those made with vidal grapes have more tropical characteristics, such as mango and lychee. The red cabernet franc icewine has more of a raspberry and rhubarb character.
As its name suggests, icewine is served chilled. Because of its dazzling character, it can be enjoyed in several ways -- including all on its own.
“It is dessert by itself,” Ziraldo says. It is also a stunning accompaniment to certain foods, although some desserts are not suitable for serving with icewine because of the wine’s sweetness.
“Don’t serve it with anything sweeter than the wine,” Ziraldo says. It is excellent served with a fruit platter, particularly dried fruits, he says.
“The acidity in the fruit cuts the sweetness,” he explains.
Apple desserts or lemon tarts are also good choices, he says. He also recommends serving icewine after the main course, but before dessert.
Icewine is also wonderful with a savoury course, such as soft cheeses, at the end of a meal.
“Foie gras and stilton are spectacular,” Ziraldo says. The fat content in these savoury foods works in harmony with the wine, he explains.
Although it may be tempting to serve icewine in a small glass, as one would a liqueur, Ziraldo says it is best served in a larger glass. In fact, glassblower Georg Riedel designed an icewine glass based on the preferences of a panel of experts who met to decide how best to serve icewine. The resulting crystal glass is part of Inniskillin’s by-the-glass program for licensees, Ziraldo says.
“We try to encourage by-the-glass, because the price per bottle can be intimidating. But once they taste it, they’re sold,” he says, adding that restaurants have been instrumental in making it popular. “We’ve had great support from restaurants presenting it to customers.”
A by-the-glass program -- including the tall, distinctive Riedel crystal stemware -- is available through the Inniskillin sales team.
“We provide glasses so that people can bring some theatre to the table,” Ziraldo says. Servers bring the bottle to the customer in a glass ice bucket and pour the golden wine at the table, where this unique product of cold weather is sure to get a warm welcome.