Ice Wine

Ice Wine

Ice wine is a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Most wine laws require temperatures below at most −7°C (19°F) before the grapes for ice wine can be picked. At such temperatures, some of the water in the grapes freezes out, but the sugars and other solids remain dissolved in the remaining juice. If the grapes are pressed whilst frozen, a very concentrated must can result, which needs special yeast and a long time to ferment. The resulting wines are very sweet, but with lots of balancing acidity. The minuscule yields mean they tend to be very expensive.

With ice wines, the freezing happens before the fermentation, not afterwards. Unlike the grapes from which other dessert wines are made, ice wine grapes should not be affected by Botrytis cinerea or noble rot, at least not to any great degree. Only healthy grapes keep in good shape until the opportunity arises for an ice wine harvest, which in extreme cases can occur after the New Year, on a northern hemisphere calendar. This gives ice wine its characteristic refreshing sweetness balanced by high acidity. When the grapes are free of Botrytis, they are said to come in “clean”.

Ice wine production is risky (the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot or are otherwise lost) and requires the availabilty of a large enough labour force to pick the whole crop within a few hours, on a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough. This results in relatively small amounts of ice wine being made world-wide, making ice wines generally quite expensive.

The most famous ice wines are German Eiswein and Canadian Icewine, but apart from these, ice wine is also made in the United States, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Australia, France and New Zealand in smaller quantities.

History of Ice Wine

There are indications that frozen grapes were used to make wine in Roman times. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote that certain grape varieties were not harvested before the first frost had occurred. The poet Martial recommended that grapes should be left on the vine until November or until they were stiff with frost. Details as to the winemaking and description of these wines are unknown. It cannot be completely ruled out that the descriptions refer to dried grape wines, a common style of wine in Roman times, where the raisin-like grapes were harvested late enough for the first frost to have fallen. In either case, the method seems later to have been forgotten. Wine from Chiomonte in the Val di Susa was popular in Roman times and this town still today produces one of Italy’s few ice wines. It is believed that the first post-Roman icewine was made in Franconia in Germany in 1794. Better documentation exists for an ice wine harvest in Dromersheim close to Bingen in Rheinhessen on February 11, 1830. The grapes were of the 1829 vintage. That winter was harsh and some wine-growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine for use as animal fodder. When it was noticed that these grapes yielded very sweet must, they were pressed and an Icewine was produced.

In Germany in the early 2000s, good ice wine vintages have been more rare than throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many wine-growers cite climate change as a cause, and this received support from a study by the Geisenheim Institute.

Canadian Ice Wine

Ice wine production is obviously limited to that minority of the world’s wine-growing regions where the necessary cold temperatures can be expected to be reached with some regularity. Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers of ice wines. About 75% of the ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario.

In contrast to most other wine-producing regions, Canada, particularly the Niagara Peninsula, consistently undergoes freezing in winter and has become the world’s largest ice wine producer. Icewine production in Canada is regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. If the sugar level in the grapes measures less than 35° Brix, then they may not be used for icewine, a minimum considerably higher than that of German Eiswein. These grapes are often downgraded to a lower designation, such as Special Select Late Harvest or Select Late Harvest. Canadian rules were further tightened in British Columbia in 2000 after a producer dealt with the mild winter of 1999 by moving grapes up to the mountains to seek freezing temperatures.

Canadian Ice Wine History

The pioneer status of the Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario led to their first ice wine, produced in 1984 under the direction of the winery’s Austrian-born co-owner Karl Kaiser, often being mentioned as Canada’s first ice wine. However, ice wine was produced in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia by German immigrant Walter Hainle in 1972. This ice wine was the result of an early and unexpected frost, and yielded 40 litres of wine, which Hainle originally did not intend to sell, although he did so in 1978.

Before embarking on the Innskillin project, Ziraldo was running a grapevine nursery and Karl Kaiser, a trained chemist, was a home wine maker. The first vines were planted in 1974, and since the duo had the ambition to make better-quality wines, their vineyard was planted with traditional European grape varieties, of the Vitis vinifera species, chosen from those cultivated in colder European regions. Their first vineyard, of 32 acres (13ha) was planted with Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay.

At that time the wine industry in the Niagara consisted of five bulk wineries growing American (“non-vinifera”) vines, and no winery licenses had been issued since 1929. Inniskillin’s license in 1975, which Ziraldo successfully lobbied for, was therefore the first post-prohibition license issued in the region.

In 1978, Inniskillin moved to its present location on the Brae Burn Estate. An existing 1920s barn, thought to have been inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was restored for the winery’s use, and has become something of a landmark.

In 1983, Karl Kaiser and Inniskillin’s German neighbour Ewald Reif, as well as two wineries with Austrian winemakers located in another part of Ontario, Hillebrand and Pelee Island, all left grapes on their vines in order to try to produce ice wine. Inniskillin and Reif lost their entire crop to hungry birds, while Hillebrand and Pelee Island were able to harvest a minuscule amount of frozen grapes. In 1984, Kaiser used nets to protect his vines and was able to produce Inniskillin’s first ice wine. This wine was made from Vidal grapes and was, in fact, labelled “Eiswein.”

The two founders of Inniskillin practised a division of labour. Kaiser handled the winemaking, and Ziraldo handled the marketing and was president of the company. Ziraldo was also instrumental in creating the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) and was the organisation’s first chairman.

In 1992, Inniskillin Wines merged with Cartier wines (one of the old wineries of the region, founded in 1889) to form Cartier Inniskillin Vintners Inc. In 1993, Cartier Inniskillin Vintners Inc. merged with T.G. Bright & Co. Limited (founded in 1874 as the Niagara Falls Wine Company) under the name Vincor International Inc. Inniskillin wines continued as a subsidiary of Vincor, with the wines labelled as before and Ziraldo and Kaiser in their old roles. In April 2006, Constellation Brands bought Inniskillin’s parent company Vincor International Inc., which became Vincor Canada. Later that year Karl Kaiser went into retirement, but stayed on as a consultant for Inniskillin’s ice wine activities, and Ziraldo left the winery and his position as president.

After the Icewine production was set on commercial footing, Canadian Icewine quickly became popular with domestic consumers and reviewers, and many other Canadian producers and regions picked up the idea, since the harsh Canadian winters lend themselves well to the large-scale production.

The international breakthrough of Canadian ice wine came in 1991, when Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal ice wine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. The Canadian trend towards increased cultivation of Vitis vinifera (European) grape varieties in the 1990s expanded the palette of varieties available to be bitten by frost.

By the early 2000s, Canada was established as the largest producer of ice wine in the world.

Pillitteri Estates Winery has emerged in the 2000s as the world’s largest estate icewine producer. In November 2006 the Canadian producer Royal DeMaria released five cases of Chardonnay icewine with a half-bottle price set at C$ 30,000, making it the world’s most expensively priced wine.

More international recognition came in 2007, when Monde Selection, the international institute in Brussels, Belgium, awarded the Grand Gold medal – the highest honor rarely accorded to a wine – to Canada’s Northern Ice Vidal Blanc Icewine 2005, the first vintage of The Ice House in Niagara, a winery founded by winemaker Jamie Macfarlane.

Sparkling Ice Wine

There is also a sparkling version of ice wine. Sparkling ice wine was created accidentally in 1988, by Canadian wine writer, Konrad Ejbich, in his home cellar, using tank samples of the previous year’s ice wine, from the Inniskillin winery in Ontario. In 1996, finally acknowledging he could not produce this product himself on a commercial basis, Ejbich decided to share the concept. He wrote about his experience with sparkling ice wine in his column in Wine Tidings magazine, challenging Canadian wineries to make sparkling ice wine on a commercial basis. The Magnotta winery in Ontario filled a 50-litre metal beer barrel with ice wine, carbonated it, and called their product the first commercial sparkling ice wine. However, Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) would not give the product its stamp of approval because no such category existed in its regulations. In 1998, Inniskillin Wines produced the first charmat method sparkling ice wine. The VQA approved Inniskillin’s product because it was not made using carbonation.

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