Icewine: Canada’s Gold in a Glass

Icewine: Canada’s golden winter elixir … that’s the hot topic of our segment above on CTV’s The Social. What is icewine and how is it different from other sweet wines? Why is Canada the world leader in producing it?

What are the best icewines and which treats do you pair with it? You’ll find all of the icewines we discussed in this segment in this custom shopping list, along with dry red and white wines, showing you the stock for each wine at your closest liquor stores so that you can try them this weekend.

Where was icewine first made?

Icewine is believed to have been accidentally discovered in Germany in 1794 when farmers tried to save their grape harvest after a sudden frost.

Icewine first appeared on the Canadian landscape in 1973, resulting in the first commercial release by Hainle Vineyards from the Okanagan.

There are now 96 wineries that produce icewine in Canada: NS (3), BC (20), ON (71) and QC (2) of more than 500 wineries in Canada.  The 23 producers in Quebec label their product Icewine but they harvest prior to -8C and hang in nets.

Ontario exports 81% of Canadian icewine, BC 16%, Quebec 2% and Nova Scotia 1%.

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Why is icewine so expensive?

Most harvests usually occur in January, but that can mean a crop loss of as much as 60 percent compared to the fall harvest due to predators such as starlings, deer, insects, as well as weather: rain and hail storms that can blow the grapes off the vines, dropping them to the ground, where they can’t be used. Netting the vines helps reduce some of the losses.

Each week past mid-January that picking is delayed because it’s not yet cold enough can mean another 10 percent loss of the crop. In 1997, with El Nino warm temperatures, Ontario (all Canadian?) vintners lost 75% of their icewine grapes.

It takes about 3-4 kilograms (8 pounds) of grapes to produce one half bottle of icewine, whereas that same amount of grapes would make six to seven times as much dry wine.

What is the most expensive icewine ever sold?

The most expensive icewine ever sold was Royal DeMaria 2006 Chardonnay Icewine, sold to a Saudi prince who paid $30,000 for a half bottle. The winery now lists the award-winning 2000 Chardonnay Icewine for a cool $250,000 a bottle.

Canada was recognized in international competition for its icewine when Niagara’s Inniskillin Estates won the coveted Grand Prix d’Honneur in 1991 at Bordeaux’s VinExpo.

Where does Canada stand in the world in icewine production?

At the very top. Our winters are consistently cold enough to make icewine every year, whereas Germany and Austria do not.

Canada is the largest icewine producer in the world, last year 2.5 million bottles worth $70 million retail. People relate to Canada as a top Icewine producer due to our extreme Canadian winters. It makes sense to them that we would make it. Canada’s top international awards are dominated by Icewine.

US President Obama served the 2003 Inniskillin Oak Aged Vidal Icewine served at his Nobel Peace Prize Dinner in Oslo, Norway.

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How did the 2013 icewine harvest go?

Canadian icewine harvests often happen in early January, but this year’s icewine grapes were picked in late November and in December, one of the earliest harvests on record. This resulted in almost double the number of grapes compared to the previous year for a number of producers.

Regardless of whether the grapes are picked in December 2013 or January 2014, the vintage ties to the annual harvest, so 2013.

The quality of those icewine grapes is also higher this year as there were five freeze/thaw episodes in December alone, which adds to the complexity and flavour profile of the juice. The white wine grapes that are green in the fall develop unique flavours after they have completely transformed to brown in colour.

Many producers have been harvesting at colder temperatures (between -12 to -14C) than usual.

How is icewine different from other sweet wines?

Icewine is different from other sweet wines: It’s a matter of cold versus rot. Sweet wines, such as French Sauternes and Barsac, Hungarian tokay and some late harvest wines, depend on botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” This fungus penetrates the grape skins and allows the water to evaporate, concentrating the juice.  However, with icewine, the water in the grapes freezes more quickly than the sugar and separates out, concentrating the sweetness and fresh fruit flavours of the dehydrated grapes.

The grapes for icewine are picked and pressed at -8oC or colder. That’s why grapes are typically picked at night so that the concentrated winter nectar isn’t diluted by melting. If that does happen, the wine must be labeled as “late harvest” rather than icewine. The thermometer may read -10oC or so, but the wind chill makes the night feel more like -30C.

Producers pick their Cabernet Franc and Riesling first due to the thinner skin. The hearty, thick-skinned Vidal can hang longer.

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Does it ever get too cold?

Yes. At -14oC, however, the grapes yield too little juice, and that miniscule amount is so sweet that the yeast can barely survive to start fermentation. One year, Inniskillin started pressing at midnight—and didn’t see a dribble of juice until 8 a.m. During the night, the vinous pellets broke two wine presses. The yield of juice for icewine is only 10-15 percent of unfrozen grapes.

The frozen grapes are rushed back to the winery where the doors are left wide open so that no melting occurs.  The vintners work from eight to twenty-four hours in this sub-zero environment pressing the grapes, a grueling process that requires the extreme pressure just to extract syrupy juice from unyielding grape pellets.

The pressure to press frozen grapes can be up to 210 pounds per square inch as compared to just 20 for regular, unfrozen grapes. They are pressed in purpose-built presses for icewine. The water is left in the press as ice crystals.

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Why not just freeze the grapes in the fall?

One wonders if it wouldn’t be easier to skip the keen cold while the grapes are wheeled into a big freezer back in the fall? Some producers do take that tack in California, Australia and other regions where the temperatures don’t get cold enough to freeze grapes naturally. These places make an ersatz version of icewine they call “icebox wine” However, these “freezer wines” lack the intensity and complexity of the real thing. Freezer-frozen grapes haven’t hung on the vines as long, undergoing the physical and chemical changes that give real icewines their unique aromas and flavors.

Why is icewine fermentation also difficult?

Fermentation is much harder to complete as juice is so high in sugar which in turn makes the viscosity greater and that stresses the yeast (we all know what stress can do to us). The yeast has more sugar to convert to alcohol: it’s working over-time and not happy about it.

All winemaking processes are slower and harder to complete because of the sweetness of the juice. Higher sugar concentration causes higher osmotic pressure for the yeast, the result is a slower fermentation.

The yeast has a difficult time surviving  in that high viscosity or high sugar juice which is why many producers add a much higher yeast population to begin with.

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Why is China, not the US, Canada’s highest export market for icewine?

There are many theories, among them that our closeness to the US makes us and our products less exotic to Americans. The distance and the unknown aspect of a winter harvest makes our harvest and icewine more mysterious for the Chinese.

Further, the Chinese are more interested in the taste profile of the concentrated, rich icewine wines than Americans, and are willing to pay for it. They are impressed with the international awards and the prestige that accompanies icewine and they have a much stronger gifting culture.

Is icewine trademarked?

VQA Canada has the trademark rights for Icewine in Canada, and the federal legal definition is “made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine.” Provincial regulations in Ontario, BC and NS also define icewine as “naturally frozen on the vine.”

Canada has secured agreements internationally to protect its interests in icewine including the name and definition.

Due to the high incidence of counterfeit and imitation ice wine products, in particular in China, market development activities are closely linked with efforts which will target the existence of counterfeit products and work towards identifying ways to educate trade and consumers on imitation ice wine.

US is also an important market with key cities identified as a priority markets in the US in terms of trade promotion and export market development. For Ontario, New York has been identified as a priority market due to its proximity and the fact that it is receptive to imported wine, home to influential writers and trade, and is a city with a well-developed wine and food culture.

For British Columbia, the focus is on Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, due to close geographic proximity to the region and the focus on developing wine tourism links between British Columbia and the US Pacific Northwest.

Counterfeit Icewines have become prominent items in retail stores across Asia bearing false labels which include:

•           Maple Leaf
•           Canadian Flag
•           Fake winery logos
•           Canadian geographical names

Some estimate that as much as 50% of icewine sold in China is fake.

Most unusual place your icewine has been consumed?

In the hot desert of the Baja Peninsula –irony of enjoying a wine made in extreme cold being consumed in extreme heat. – Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson

Two Hands Wearing Red Gloves Holding Ice Wine Grapes With Snow Outdoors

Peller Estates Oak Aged Vidal Icewine


Peller Estates Oak Aged Vidal Icewine 2012 Niagara, Ontario Superb richness and layers in this icewines from the oak aging. It’s like wrapping apricot in vanilla spice. The luscious mouth-filling intensity…  Peller Estates Oak Aged Vidal Icewine Review and Rating

Mission Hill


Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Riesling Icewine 2011 Okanagan BC VQA, British Columbia This lovely icewine hails from the challenging 2011 vintage. It’s a tribute to Mission Hill’s winemaker that this dessert wine still displays its classic signature in… Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Riesling Icewine Review and Rating

Pillitteri Estates Winery Gewurztraminer Icewine


Pillitteri Estates Winery Gewurztraminer Icewine 2008 Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario Generous aromas and flavours of apricot, peach, mango, and clementine in this superb icewine… Pillitteri Estates Winery Gewurztraminer Icewine Review and Rating

Wayne Gretzky Estates No.99 Cabernet Franc Icewine


Wayne Gretzky Estates No.99 Cabernet Franc Icewine 2010 Niagara, Ontario Aromas of fresh strawberry and raspberry wrap themselves around your senses in this dazzling icewine. A superb effort. Wayne Gretzky Estates No.99 Cabernet Franc Icewine Review and Rating

Reif Estate Winery Grand Cabernet Franc Icewine


Reif Estate Winery Grand Cabernet Franc Icewine 2012 Niagara, Ontario Homemade strawberry jam in a glass: this icewine s opulent and comforting at the same time. Raspberry, strawberry and rhubarb aromas and flavours flood the senses. Perfect with… Reif Estate Winery Grand Cabernet Franc Icewine Review and Rating

Icewine harvest

The Icewine Gala
A Bacchus Evening of Icewine & Revelry
JANUARY 10, 2014

This spectacular evening showcases wines from 40 Ontario wineries. It is Canada’s largest tasting of internationally acclaimed VQA Icewine and table wines.

Discovery Pass
January 10-12, 17-19, 24-26

Enjoy eight unique winery experiences during the three weekends of the Winterfest in the Square

St. Catharines • January 24 – 5 to 9pm | January 25 – all day

Twenty Valley Winter WineFest, Jordan Village • January 11 & 12

Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Celebrations, Heritage District • Weekends in January

NatalieIceWine(Main)Posted with permission of CTV.



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