Canada’s Ice Wine
A special type of wine that is gaining in popularity worldwide but is still relatively unknown is a very special dessert wine that is called ice wine and is made from healthy grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Unlike standard dessert wines made with grapes that contain a degree of rot, grapes used in ice wine production are free of disease and the resulting wine is high in acidity and “clean” while being sweet and slightly syrupy in consistency.
Critics and the general public are very fond of the beverage; however, most wine producing nations on the planet cannot produce true ice wine because it simply doesn’t get cold enough; the only two countries which experience the correct temperatures are Canada and at times, Germany.
Ice Wine: Around Since Roman Times, but Rare
Ice wine has been around for a long time, with the Romans rumored to have known the technique, and mentions of Eiswein being made in the 1500s and 1600s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that ice wine began to be produced on a proper commercial scale after a good technique was discovered. Even though better technology has permitted ice-wine production on a larger scale in places like Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia in Canada, production can still be incredibly risky, and frozen grapes must be harvested within hours of achieving the correct temperature (-80C), meaning a large workforce must be mobilized within minutes, sometimes in the middle of the night. The grapes also have to be processed while they are still frozen in order for the sweeter, more concentrated juices to come out. If the grapes thaw, the entire endeavor can be ruined.
This is one of the reasons why ice wine is so expensive; it’s just incredibly expensive to produce, and on average a small 375 ml bottle will cost up to three times more than a 750ml bottle of fine regular wine. However, for the flavor experience, it’s a price many ice wine fans are happy to pay.
The main varietal used in Canadian ice wines is Vidal, and according to Canada’s Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) the term ice wine can only be applied for wines made with grapes that have frozen while still on the vine; dessert wines made from grapes that have been flash frozen in a processing facility are usually called ice-box wines. Ice wines, because of their very high amounts of sugar, also take much longer than normal wines to ferment; fermentation of the frozen grapes can take as long as several months and special yeast must be used.
There are sparkling ice wines available on the market as well; incredibly rare, it has only been on the market since the late 1990’s and is produced using the charmat method. For now, the only winery that offers sparkling ice wine is Inniskillin in the Canadian province of Ontario.
While Vidal is the most popular ice wine varietal, ice wine makers in Canada, and to some extent in the U.S. have been experimental with other types. German ice wines usually use Riesling grapes, and another common type is Cabernet Franc. Experimental grapes being tested at present are Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Noir and even Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the color of ice wine only ranges from amber to rose; a truly deep colored red ice wine is an impossibility because the grape skins do not get the chance to steep as they do with unfrozen grapes in the “must” process.
Taste and Aroma
As far as flavor is concerned, ice wine has become far more popular than dessert wine as a beverage because it is very sweet yet very refreshing due to its high acidity. Ice wine is described as being medium to full-bodied and has a long finish that lingers. Unlike fresh, young regular wines such as Beaujolais, ice wine is not simple or naïve in any way; aromas can include things like caramel, pears, apples, peaches, figs, dried apricots, honey or citrus, and some white varietals have a bouquet reminiscent of lychee, pineapple and mango. The flavors are fruit forward, but are deep and linger nicely.
German ice wines tend to have a relatively low alcohol content, being comparable to that of a strong beer at 6%. Canadian ice wines, due to somewhat consistent harvests and larger must weights, have a higher content, like that of regular table wine, which can range from 8% to 13%. In Canada, if the must weight is insufficient for the strict guidelines of ice wine production, the resulting wine can be sold as a “special select late harvest” or a “select late harvest” and will be sold for a fraction of the price of ice wine. If a person wishes to try something similar to an ice wine but cannot afford it, a special select late harvest will be a satisfactory substitute, but will not have all the depth of an ice wine.
To Age or not to Age?
Depending on your personal tastes, ice wine can be aged or it can be consumed immediately after purchase. Some critics will argue that if the wine is aged, it will lose its characteristic complex fruitiness and will turn a more amber color; however others state that aging will bring about new flavors and aromas, adding yet another layer to the ice wine’s flavor profile.
Ice wines sold commercially are newcomers in the wine game; and although they are expensive, it is worth the money to buy a good bottle from your local wine shop. Ask the shop owner or employees for their recommendation and chances are you’ll start adding ice wines to your home wine collection.