In the quiet weeks after a bustling holiday season, as snow covers the vineyards in Niagara and the fireplace never seems to take a rest, there is a special drink we take time to celebrate…
But before we get into this delicious taste, let’s go back and find out how the one of a kind drink came to be!
Icewine made it’s first definite documented appearance in Rheinhessen, Germany on February 11, 1830. After a particularly harsh winter of the 1829 vintage, wine growers decided to leave grapes hanging on the vine to use as animal food. Little did they know they were on the brink of an invention soon to be sought after. Noticing how sweet the grapes were, they decided to press, and thus- Eiswein (Icewine) was born!
With cold temperatures as the defining piece of this “liquid-gold” substance, following it’s introduction in 1830, the 19th century only has documented 6 years with ice wine harvest – though there wasn’t much interest in producing yearly yet. 1961 saw an increase in popularity, but by the early 2000’s climate change had gotten a hold of the German icewine-growing regions and Germany has seen less production as time goes by.
This is where we come in-
CANADA & ICEWINE RULES
1983 saw a group of Austrian & German winemakers here in Ontario decide to make use of our chilly winter temperatures. Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin most notably “pioneering” New World icewine. Ewald Reif (ahem- Reif), as well as winemakers from Hillebrand (Currently Trius), and Pelee Island were the others in the first official year of Ontario Icewine.
As the delicacy spread from taste bud to taste bud, person to person, Canada quickly became popular as the worlds largest icewine producing country. (Think twice about cursing your cold weather Canada!) Common icewine varietals include Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc – though year after year winemakers experiment with new varieties and have brought us Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc and many many more.
Icewine tends to have a slightly lower alcohol content than regular table wine, and since frozen, shrivelled grapes are producing one drop of juice per (as opposed to your usual 10 drops in an in-season grape) bottles sold tend to be 200mL or 375mL & typical cost can be anywhere from $40-$200! (Don’t let me forget that $30,000 bottle story…)
With 75% of Canada’s icewine coming from Niagara; British Columbia, Quebec, and even Nova Scotia hop on the icewine bandwagon yearly. With popularity also comes rules, and Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards for icewine. (Essentially rules to make ‘legal’ icewine)
- Icewine grapes must have a sugar level of at least 35 Brix – otherwise cannot be considered icewine and will be referred to as “Late Harvest”
- Grapes must have a “hard freeze” which means by law must be -8°C or colder (Most wait for -10° to -12° which is the same temperature best to serve it at)
- If freeze does not come, or freeze is too cold grapes are resorted to be left for rot. This was particularly proven in the 1990s when Vineland Winery broke their press while processing frozen -20°C grapes.
- Grapes must be pressed while still frozen; therefore typically harvest occurs overnight (by hand!) or very early in the morning, and cellar workers press in unheated spaces. (Need a job?)
- Grapes must freeze naturally. In other countries, some winemakers use mechanical freezing to simulate this effect. Typically this will be called ‘icebox wines’.
Enough about the particulars – let’s talk about the…
Often described as liquid gold icewine truly is a smooth explosion of flavours. Since grapes have stayed on vine long after harvest, they have naturally raisinated and become very sweet. Once made, thickness is closer to a syrup than a table wine and ‘dessert in a glass’ is no understatement. Taste, just as with wine, can depend on everything from weather & soil, to farmer & vineyard care, right down to winemaker & chemistry.
I’ve had Vidal’s that taste like juicy caramelized peaches, Rieslings that mimic tropical mango’s, and Cabernet’s that have me salivating over their strawberry & rhubarb jam flavours. It can really open your world up to a new form of art!
Since your tongue’s sweet receptors are in the front, it’s common to taste by letting the icewine fall underneath your tongue. This way it will touch the sides of your tongue (acid and salt receptors), and by holding it there for a few seconds the flavours will release as it warms. As you swallow let the icewine move over the back of your tongue hitting the bitter receptor on the way down. (Never though talking about my tongue receptors would make me so thirsty…)
NOW WE DRINK
As born and raised Ontario folk, we’ve gotten creative with our icewine. Formally we’ll open a bottle in good company and enjoy a small glass after dinner instead of a dessert – or paired with dessert! Sweetness compliments more intense flavours, so as much as it tastes delicious drizzled over ice cream (or on waffles for breakfast…), it also stands up to a nice blue cheese, or a spicy treat! Try marinating your home made chicken wings in Icewine and your favourite hot sauce – you won’t be disappointed! Icewine also adds a delightful component to modern day drinks. We commonly see it being used in cocktails here in Niagara. Niagara Brewing Company (On Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls) features an Icewine Beer in the winter. Shiny Apple Cider released their second round of their Icewine infused hard Apple Cider, available only in January. Ice House Winery showcases a year round Icewine Slushie and lots more! Mmmmm
To top it all off, join us here in Niagara every January for our icewine festival. Multiple events run over the course of the month, so you’ll be sure to experience all that this specialty drink has to offer! The last weekend of the downtown Niagara On The Lake outdoor festival is set for this weekend! More information on all things festival can be found here!
Ready to taste your first sips? Join us on a tour to experience!
Thanks for learning with us! Cheers,
Brewery & Distillery Tours Niagara