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As set forth in the BC Wine Laws, icewine grapes MUST BE naturally frozen on the vine.  (Photo: Flickr user, rivard)
As set forth in the BC Wine Laws, icewine grapes MUST BE naturally frozen on the vine. (Photo: Flickr user, rivard)

Okanagan Icewines

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It is believed that wine-making is the second oldest profession in the world. And amongst all the different wines, there are many diverse styles, dessert wine being one of them. From the famous Ports of Portugal, the classic Sauternes of Bordeaux, Madeira from the island of the same and Marsala, the sweet wine of Sicily, these wines define the country or region from where it is produced. So it is with Icewine or Eiswein as it is called in Germany. While it is produced in many different countries, Germany and specifically Canada are the world’s largest producers.

Although it’s origin is often debated, it is generally assumed that Icewine originated by accident in Germany in the late 18th century when a vineyard owner was away on business at harvest and a quick temperature drop caused the grapes to freeze. He harvested the grapes anyway and produced what was called Winter Wine. It remained a German secret and it was not until the 1960’s that production began to spread throughout Europe.

Throughout the 19th century and up until 1960, Eiswein harvests were a rare occurrence in Germany. Since 1858 when the first documented vintage was produced at Schloss Johannisberg, only six vintages had been produced. The infrequency of the vintages seems to indicate that the production was the result of freakish weather conditions and that very little effort was expended to produce these wines.

Until 1961. This was the year that the Pneumatic Bladder Press was invented. Now German Eiswein producers were able to press the frozen grapes easier so the production of German Eiswein increased, which was also fuelled by the popularity.

In Canada, Icewine was first produced in BC in 1973 at the Hainle Vineyard Winery in Peachland, B.C. German immigrant Walter Hainle produced forty litres from grapes that had frozen on the vine from an unexpected quick arctic freeze much like the first Eiswein. There was no intention of selling the wine - Mr. Hainle was just saving the crop the only way he knew, by producing a wine that he remembered from Germany. Icewine was not the household name it is now as no one in the Okanagan was familiar with it.

But as he sipped this golden nectar he started to think of possibilities. This type of wine was perfect for the cold climate that descends on the valley in November and December. In 1978, Walter Hainle and his son Tilman released 156 - .375ml bottles of the first commercially made Icewine in Canada.

Mr. Hainle and Tilman continued to produce Icewine every year from a grape with the dubious moniker, Okanagan Riesling and opened their own winery in 1988. They planted correct Riesling vines, which started to yield some spectacular Germanic-styled Icewines.

In 1990, the BC Wine Act along with the VQA program came into being, mandating how specific wines can be produced, including Icewine.

So what is this wine and exactly how is made. First, it can only be made from varieties that are set forth in the BC Wine Laws and the grapes MUST BE naturally frozen on the vine.

There was a winery about a decade ago which tried to freeze their grapes by trucking them up the Okanagan Connector when the required temperature was not forthcoming. The grapes must be transported by the most direct route, from the vineyard to the winery. No detours up into the mountains.

The best varieties for Icewine are Riesling and Vidal as these are quite winter hardy and can withstand the longer hang time.

At least six hours is needed to harvest and press the grapes with the harvesting usually started in the wee hours of the morning. Harvesting is done by hand, often with volunteers who are enthusiastic (crazy) Icewine lovers and want to experience the harvest first hand.

Once all the grapes are picked, they are pressed to extract the liquid nectar. This is done with hydraulic presses under much higher pressure than for regular grapes as Icewine grapes are literally frozen marbles. As the composition of the grapes are mostly water, this is left in the press as shards of ice and the sticky, sweet syrup that will become Icewine is transferred to a fermenting vessel. The yield for Icewine grapes is much lower than for table wines - the average is approximately 15% of grapes harvested for table wines.

The air temperature must be -8º C or lower and the grapes pressed continuously while still frozen. If the temperature should rise above -8º C, the wine cannot be called Icewine and the winery loses approximately half its Icewine revenue.

The Brix level, which is the measurement of the sugar of the pressed grapes, must not be less than 32% after being transferred to the fermentation vessel, and have a combined average of at least 35% from all the pressings in the fermentation vessel. And the residual sugar in Icewine when it is bottled must not be less than 100 g/L. To give you an idea of how sweet this is, a regular bottle of dry white wine would have a residual sugar level of 5g/L.

A normal table wine is usually fermented in about a week. But because the Icewine juice is very sweet, it can be very difficult to ferment and take a long time, up to three to four months to complete. Once fermentation is complete and the wine is “stabilized”, it is ready to be bottled and sold.

Pairing Icewine with food is not very difficult. A good rule of thumb is not to pair it with anything sweeter than the wine. A fruit and cheese plate at the end of the meal is a classic. Try a selection of kiwi, pear and sliced apples along with some blue cheese.

Also, try to think beyond dessert. Try Icewine with pan-seared foie gras or a rich pâté as appetizers.

It may have been the Germans that invented it, but it was the Canada who turned Icewine into one the world's most expensive and delicious dessert wines.

In Vino Veritas

Weekend Wine Picks:

One of the more impressive Icewines is the 2009 Tantalus Riesling Icewine ($70). Sourced from the winery’s own 31 year old Riesling block, the wine is a rich honey-gold in colour, intensely sweet with rich, unctuous aromas and flavours of red apple, pear, pineapple, apricot, mango and honey balanced by super, crisp acidity, a rich, elegant palate and a incredible, long finish.

The 2008 Poggiotondo Rosso Toscana IGT ($25 PWS) is a blend of 40% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot and 30% Syrah, the Merlot and Syrah being previous not permitted. From vineyards surrounding the Tuscan town of Vinci, the hometown of the Renaissance’s Master Leonardo, this is a delicious wine with a deep ruby red colour, fresh and juicy flavours of ripe strawberry, cherry and blackberry, followed by subtle spices as well as hints of tobacco and chocolate. It is rich and dense in the mouth with intense ripe and juicy tannins, a very good mid-palate and a delicious finish.

From the Central Coast of California, this Syrah is absolutely stunning. The 2005 Beringer Syrah ($18 PWS...reduced from $27) is a delicious, deep ruby/purple-hued Syrah, offering loads of peppery berry fruit touched by roasted Provençal herbs, black currant fruit, black pepper, crème de cassis, mushrooms and underbrush characteristics in its full-bodied, deep style. It possesses supple tannin, impressive purity and overall harmony, and a surprisingly long, layered finish. With good underlying acidity and ripe tannin, it should evolve nicely for 5-7 years. Fantastic with a standing rib roast.

The 2007 Domaine Camp Galhan ‘Les Perassières’ Vins Des Pays D’Uzes ($30 PWS) is a ultra-concentrated 50-50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, displaying incredibly black/purple colour with aromas of roasted meat, pepper, black raspberry, cassis and kirsch liqueur-like fruit followed by gorgeous aromas of licorice, smoke, sandalwood, leather and a hint of new oak. The palate is full-bodied and spicy with roasted sausage, black and red fruit, herbs, incense, and spice. The finish is full-bodied, and opulent with soft, velvety acidity and very firm tannins, which is in keeping with this top-notch vintage. Cellar and drink this marvellous wine over the 10+years.

A spectacular value in Chilean wine, the 2008 Viña Maipo Carménère-Cabernet ($11.90) is an 85%-15% blend of the two delicious grape varieties. The colour is a deep ruby red with rich complex aromas and flavours of blackberry, raspberry, and cassis with hints of Asian spice, chocolate and vanilla. The finish has soft acidity and medium tannins with elegant flavours of licorice, cocoa and dark forest fruits of wild blueberries and blackcurrants.

The 2010 Viña Maipo Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay ($11.90) is a juicy 85%-15% blend of these two mouth-watering varieties, light straw in colour with aromas of ripe tropical pineapple, grapefruit, and melon aromas, combined with fresh passion fruit and gooseberry. The palate is crisp and round with fresh grapefruit, apple and pear flavours, a hint of sweetness and zesty acidity on the finish.

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