Ice, ice, baby


Cold temperatures may have been wreaking havoc throughout North America this winter, but at least one good thing has come of it: 2013 was a bumper crop for Canadian icewine.

Winemakers in Ontario’s Niagara region have reported that this could be the largest harvest of icewine grapes in the province’s history.

Ideal conditions made 2013 one of the earliest harvests on record, with most producers harvesting well before Christmas. This comes as a relief to Canadian winemakers who have been struggling with mild winters in the past few years, which caused the icewine grapes to remain on the vine well into January and even February: under Canadian wine law, grapes for icewine can only be harvested once the temperatures falls to -8C and they are pressed while still frozen outside in the vineyards, so only the concentrated juice is extracted from the frozen berries—usually only a drop or two per grape.

An earlier harvest means better quality grapes, particularly the Vitis vinifera varieties (notably Cabernet Franc and Riesling), which have thinner skins and, therefore, don’t hold up as well when left on the vine for extended periods as their hybrid cousins like Vidal, which have a thicker skin and are more tolerant of the cold. Longer periods of time before harvest also means more losses to foraging wildlife; vineyards are essentially giant buffet tables to hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

Icewine is what put Canada on the world wine map—for years it was the only type of Canadian wine that gained any recognition internationally. It didn’t originate here, however —the first icewines were made by accident in 18th-century Germany when an early blizzard froze the vines. Germany usually doesn’t get as reliably cold as Canada, however, so it can’t make icewine as consistently as here. In fact, while Canadians are enjoying this record-breaking early, huge harvest, German winemakers in many regions still haven’t been able to harvest due to very mild temperatures.

There’s a good reason why Canadian wine hadn’t received any attention prior to icewine’s emergence in the mid-’80s: almost all of it was little more than cloying plonk (our claim to fame in the ’70s was Baby Duck, which gives you an idea of the average quality of our wine at that time). Since then the industry has expanded rapidly, with red, white and sparkling wines from both Ontario and British Columbia gaining praise and winning awards around the world.

But although other types of Canadian wine have stepped into the spotlight, it’s worthwhile to revisit the industry’s origins and appreciate icewine, which is a singular wine unlike any other. Though icewine is a sweet dessert wine, it also retains a zingy acidity that refreshes your palate and makes it a natural pairing to desserts and sweeter dishes; it is also remarkably good with many cheeses (especially blue) and spicy food. V

Château des Charmes Vidal Icewine
Pillitteri Riesling Icewine
Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine
Hillebrand Riesling Icewine

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