The Best Icewines of Canada
Whenever I’m abroad doing wine-related things, most people confess to me that the only thing they know about Canadian wine is icewine.
Perhaps Canadians have done too good a job extolling our work in the True North Strong and Free, but many people are surprised to find out Canada is, in fact, warm enough to make quality table wine. Luckily, we are also cold enough to be a world leader in making icewine – that super-sweet, candy-like wine that comes in those tall, thin bottles with the big price tag.
How Icewine is Made
To make icewine, some grape bunches are left on the vine after the normal harvest. Defying bears, birds, curious tourists and so on, the grapes remain on the vine and shrivel up through autumn, and when the temperature dips to around -10C, they are picked. At -10C, a wine grape is mostly frozen through. When you press one, only a drop of sugar-laden juice is extracted – perfect for making a super-sweet dessert wine.
Icewine Production in Canada
Canada’s icewine is so popular that, between B.C. and Ontario, almost 900,000 litres of it is made annually, with about three quarters of it coming from Ontario. Some icewine is produced in Quebec – though that province really shines with iced apple cider – and Nova Scotia, but generally in very small quantities, and it’s rarely sold in Alberta. Eiswein (icewine in German) has been around for centuries, though it was a rarity, given that German winters couldn’t reliably produce cold-enough weather to freeze grapes on the vine. Here in the Great White North, we don’t have that “problem” and are almost guaranteed that every winter will be cold enough for icewine.
In Canada, the production of icewine is regulated through the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance), and every bottle of Canadian icewine should have the VQA logo on the label. Both B.C. and Ontario have their own VQA, but the regulations are similar and state, in a nutshell, that producers must register their intention to make icewine, grapes must come from a recognized wine appellation in Canada and have a minimum sugar content and that grapes must be frozen on the vine. Grapes should also be a vitis vinifera variety such as riesling or cabernet franc, or of the hybrid variety vidal.
On the best grapes for making icewine, Karl Kaiser, Canadian wine and icewine legend and one of the founding partners of Inniskillin Wines, says, “It has to be aromatic, because a sweet wine with no aromatic overtones is plain sugar water … It has to be late ripening [and] it has to have relatively high acidity.”
Choosing and Serving Icewine
Riesling is a top choice for icewine, with high acidity and citrus and mineral characters perfect for balanced icewine. Vidal is a hybrid that ripens slowly and has good acidity, plus intense aromatics. Icewines made from vidal usually have apricot, lychee and other tropical tones. Cabernet franc, a red variety, is remarkably well-suited to icewine with flavours of strawberry, herbs and often a spice or rhubarb note that offsets the sweetness well.
Icewine is generally expensive, reflecting the effort and small yields involved in making it. (There’s a very short window to pick grapes, so it’s often done at night and is an all-hands-on-deck effort.) Most icewine is sold in smaller-format bottles such as 200-ml or 375-ml sizes, perfect for just a taste after dinner with friends.
Icewine should always be served well-chilled – basically, straight out of the fridge – and, although there are specialized glasses for icewine, a small, tulip-shaped glass for white wines works perfectly well. Food pairings that work with icewine range from blue cheeses to fruit-based desserts, though it can also go very well with homemade buttery cookies or foie gras.
Vintage Chophouse: Vidal Icewine and Lemon Meringue Pie
Words can’t describe how enjoyable these are together, with plenty of citrus flavours, richness and a double sugar rush that works so well. The Mission Hill Reserve Vidal Icewine ($16 for the glass, or $93 for the bottle) is a great way to finish off the meal.
The Belvedere: Kerner Icewine and Bread Pudding
With the bulging waistline to prove it, I like dessert, and the stunning B.C. apple and cinnamon bread pudding is a fun match with the Tinhorn Creek Kerner Icewine. Floral and aromatic, it holds its own with this delicious concoction. ($14 for the glass, or $100 for the bottle).
Redwater Grille: Cabernet Franc Icewine and Crme Brle
Maybe it’s my weak will when it comes to a good crme brle, but Redwater certainly does make a good caramel popcorn-flavoured one. Match it with Domaine Pinnacle Ice Cider, settle into your seat and enjoy pure, sweet comfort. ($10 by the glass).
6 Great Icewine Picks
Domaine Pinnacle 2010 Ice Cider, Quebec
While technically not icewine, there is no disputing a Canadian winter can work its magic on grapes as well as apples. With bright apple characters and a mild nuttiness, this cider is intense, floral and delicious, with a variety of comfort-food desserts (hint: think apple crumble). $33 (375mL)
Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery 2010, The Lost Bars Vidal Icewine, B.C.
With rich apricot and honey flavours and enough acid to give it a little zing, the Lost Bars should find a match with some blue cheese or cheesecake. A very well-made vidal from B.C. $46 (375mL
Henry of Pelham Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
This wine perfectly illustrates why riesling makes such great icewine, with beautiful lemon, honey and apricot flavours and an excellent backbone of acidity tying it all together. If there were such a thing as an everyday icewine, this would be it. $74 (375mL)
Inniskillin Estates 2011 Sparkling Vidal Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Sure, sparkling icewine might seem a little gimmicky, but if it works, why not? The bubbles are a little finer than in sparkling table wine and help to scrub some of the sweetness from the wine and refresh the palate with lemon and honey flavours and a beautiful, effervescent texture. Delicious on its own or with lemony desserts. $76 (375mL)
Stratus 2010 Red Icewine, Niagara Peninsula
Somewhat unusual in that it is a blend of red grapes, this excellent red icewine is mildly spicy with hints of dried raspberry and strawberry fruit flavours, plus plum and a little bitter chocolate on the palate. I think it’s enjoyable on its own or with a little dark chocolate. $45 (375mL)
Pillitteri 2011 Cabernet Franc Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
A favourite example of mine for red icewine, the cabernet franc brings a little dried strawberry fruit and spice notes along with a mild herbal flavour on the finish. It calls out for pies with rhubarb or dark chocolate with strawberries or raspberries. $35 (200mL)