Icewine in America and Eastern Canada
The world of Icewine has experienced a changing of the guard over the past decade. Germany and Austria used to be the largest producers of “Eiswein.” However, according to W. Denman Zirkle, winemaker for Richard Böcking Winery in the heart of Mosel River Valley in Germany, “with global warming we haven’t had the cold winters we used to have in Germany and haven’t made an Icewine for about 10 years.” Today Canada and the United States dominate the icewine industry, with Canada currently recognized as the world’s largest producer.
What is Icewine?
Icewine is a sweet wine produced from frozen grapes. Icewine grapes not only have to be harvested frozen but must be pressed before they thaw out. The goal is to eliminate as much water in the grape as possible and make a concentrate. This concentrate is then fermented into a rich, lush wine.
For many people, icewine is the purest expression of concentrated grape flavor. This dessert wine is sweet, though not necessarily as viscous as a botrytis-affected wine or high in alcohol. The result ideally should be well-balanced between refreshing sweetness and high acidity.
Grapes Used in Icewine
Historically, Riesling was the grape of choice for icewine. Angelo Pavan, winemaker for Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan, Ontario, Canada said, “The only grape variety we use for icewine is Riesling, just as they do in Germany. For icewine you need a late ripening variety which is aromatic; high in acidity to balance the residual sugar in the finished wine, and is fairly thick-skinned so that it will hold up to being left on the vine into the late fall and early winter. You don’t want a grape which is not aromatic, for you will not end up with an interesting bouquet and you definitely need a variety which is high in acidity, or else the wine will not be well-balanced with the high residual sugar. It would be ‘cloying.’”
In New York’s Niagara Wine Region winemakers have broken away from the “Riesling only” club. Their icewines are made from Catawba, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and others.
Vidal Blanc, a grape created in the 1930s by French grape breeder Jean-Louis Vidal, was initially designed to be used in cognac, but winemakers now find it well-suited for icewine. Cross between Ugni blanc, Rayon d’Or, and winter-hardy hybrid grapes, it doesn’t have the aging potential of a Riesling, but its bright fruit flavors and acid levels strike a balance ideal for icewine.
Catawba, an American grape variety, grown on the east coast, is used for not only wines but juices, jams and jellies. It is a late-ripening grape that often stays on the vine months after regular harvest.
Ann Schultze, co-owner of Schulze Vineyards and Winery, a member of the Niagara Wine Trail located northwest of Niagara Falls told The Grapevine Magazine, “We have won Double Gold on our Block Three Icewine (made with Catawba grapes) and also our Vidal Blanc Icewine. Global warming hasn’t been an issue for us. We still have four distinct seasons, and the winters have been longer.”
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Vignoles are commonly used in the production of icewine.
Vignoles is a vigorous hybrid grape that is thought to be a result of a cross between Seibel and Pinot de Corton. This grape is prized for its ability to produce balanced and fruity late-harvest style sweet white wines. It was given the name by the Finger Lakes Wine Growers Association in 1970.
Canada is producing Icewines made from, amongst others, Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner. These hearty grapes can hold up throughout Canada’s cooler seasons.
Grapes don’t know international boundaries. The Niagara Peninsula, a strip of fertile land adjacent to Lake Ontario and the north shore of Lake Erie, is straddled between New York and Ontario, Canada. The Niagara River dissects the two countries. To the east is the USA with the Niagara Wine Trail and to the west side of the river is the Ontario Wine Region. The Niagara Escarpment is a long steep ridge carved by ancient glaciers and most famous as the cliff featuring Niagara Falls. It is a prominent escarpment that formed not only the falls but the Great Lakes and is vital to the distinctive microclimate that supports Ontario’s wine regions.
Located at 41 to 44 degrees latitude, the Niagara Peninsula experiences a climate with copious amounts of sunshine and adequate rainfall. The soil is enriched with minerals from the underlying bedrock, often resulting in wines with remarkable complexity.
Settled in 1842, Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse County sits on the 45th parallel. In 1974, farmers veered away from apples and vegetables and planted their first grapes. Varietals planted included Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
The Great Lakes surrounding these areas are the moderating factor in keeping the temperatures in the vineyards cool in spring and preventing the vines from rushing headlong into bud break and maintaining summer temperatures as the threat of fall frosts approach.
International Standards of Ice Wine (Adapted from Canadian Standards)
Icewine produced in Canada is required to meet specific standards, as determined by a provincial authority that has verified that the produce is wine that was made exclusively from grapes naturally frozen on the vine. Strict rules govern the harvesting, handling, and labeling of icewine internationally. These rules are being adopted in the United States.
1. Icewine must be produced exclusively from grapes that have been harvested naturally frozen on the vine and pressed in a continuous process while the air temperature is 17.6° F (minus 8° C) or lower.
2. The pressing shall take place immediately after picked while the grapes are still frozen, within the recognized Viticultural area, in which the grapes are grown.
3. Grapes must be transferred from field to press by the most direct route.
4. Artificial refrigeration of the juice, must or wine is prohibited except for tank cooling during fermentation and during cold stabilization prior to bottling.
5. Juice pressed must achieve an overall minimum average of 35 Brix.
6. No batch less than 32 Brix may be used.
7. The residual sugar shall not be less than 100g/l at bottling and result exclusively from the natural sugar of the grapes.
8. The actual alcohol shall result exclusively from the natural sugar of the grapes. The concentration of sugar in the grape juice, grape must, or wine by any chemical or physical means is prohibited.
9. The wine shall have an actual alcohol content not less than 7 percent and not greater than 14.9 percent by volume.
10. The viticultural area where the grapes are grown shall be declared on the display panel.
11. The producer must file harvesting and pressing data.
12. The wine must be produced and labeled as a vintage-dated wine.
Niagara vintners have a goal of creating a global reputation. Strict adherence to the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) ensures the consumer of high quality Canadian and American icewine.
“The only thing I can say about making Icewine is that it’s always cold,” Cave Spring’s Pavan said. “If you can’t brave the cold, you don’t want to be out in the vineyards picking or at the winery pressing the frozen grapes.”
Since harvest takes place when the temperature is 17.6° F (minus 8° C) or lower, harvest commonly takes place in the middle of the night or the early morning, typically in late December or early January. Immediately after harvest, grapes are brought into the production area and pressed. Only about 10-20 percent of the liquid in these frozen grapes is used for icewine. The juice is then added to the fermenter, and because it is so sweet, it can take three to six months to complete fermentation.
“The colder the temperature, the higher the Brix, but the volume of juice decreases dramatically with colder temperatures. Below minus 12° C, the Brix increases to over 50°Bx with hardly any yield,” Pavan said.
Grapes should be harvested as soon as possible once outside temps reach minus 8° C.
“The longer the grapes hang on the vine, the more desiccation takes place, and so there is less to harvest, and yields drop substantially, with the corresponding increase in cost in making the icewine.”
Because of the smaller market and higher cost of production, icewine is often a bit more expensive. It takes four to five times the grapes to make half the amount of other wines. Over the years, some icewine producers have seen “counterfeit” versions of their wine both overseas and in their home countries and had to take extra efforts to ensure their wines are correctly attributed. Additionally, they are competing against wines not made in the traditional way and still marketing themselves as icewine. However, it is easy to spot the lesser quality wines. Consumers should stick with wines labeled “icewine” and steer clear from any wine labeled “iced wine” or “Riesling ice.” These wines are adulterated in some way and not equivalent to the real thing. The real thing needs no adulteration.