Many years ago, when I was still living in Colorado, a friend of mine decided to make 'ice wine' from grapes he had gathered from a vineyard on Colorado's western slope. I had a long interest and fascination with German Eisweins, so my friend's new project caught my interest.
In the traditional sense, Eisweins are made from grapes frozen on the vine and harvested long after the traditional picking season in Germany, which is usually the latest of any European wine region. Although western Colorado had no shortage of cold weather, with below freezing temperatures, my friend opted to take the Riesling grapes he had gathered and harden them in the freezer. It was a novel way of making 'ice' wines then and remains so today, although traditionalists would say it's not the natural way and shouldn't be considered with true Eiswein.
Fast forward to 2007 and you'll find that the field for sweet wines made from grapes frozen on the vine, grapes frozen off the vine, or from frozen concentrate has become relatively crowded. As a small, select category, Eisweins remain, almost exclusively, the product of German winemaking. A smaller number of Austrian wineries also make Eiswein, but when it comes to this oddball style of sweet wine, Germany rules. But relatively recently, Canada got into the frozen wine game--and the whole field changed dramatically.
Worldwide, winemakers look for a wine type or style to call their own, to bring attention to their region: Australian red wine is identified by Shiraz (Syrah), New Zealand has re-written the book on Sauvignon Blanc, Chile has Carmenere, Argentina resurrected Malbec and South Africa tried, somewhat in vain, to sell the wine world on Pinotage.
Canada, never a major member of the world wine club, needed something unique to grab attention. In 1984, Inniskillin, in the cold climes of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Ontario), released Canada's first Icewine for public sale. Wine fans immediately took to these luscious sweet wines and today Canadian Icewines are viewed by many wine drinkers as the equal of the best German Eiswein, or even better.
The shock that came out of Canada shook the German wine industry, because some German winemakers are very proprietary about Eiswein, while others can't decide where an Eiswein fits into the German hierarchy of wines that escalate in sweetness and complexity. In 1982, Eiswein became a separate Pradikat type with the minimum must weight of a Beerenauslese. Today, as a type, German Eiswein is generally thought to fall between beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. German Eiswein is most often made from Riesling, although other popular German varieties like Muller-Thurgau and Kerner are sometimes used.
A misconception about German Eiswein is that it is a botrytized wine, like Sauternes and Barsac. Traditional Eiswein is made from botrytis-free frozen grapes, although there is no legal requirement regarding the presence of botrytis. Recently, some German growers have taken to using plastic sheeting to protect the ripe grapes from birds and rain, a controversial practice that can generate humidity, one of the major requirements for the development of botrytis. Thus, some present-day German Eisweins may have a little botrytis, separating them from the more classic styles.
Nature does not always cooperate in Germany's wine regions, with the absence of a hard freeze in some years making Eiswein all but impossible. This is not a problem on Canada's Niagara Peninsula, where a hard freeze occurs every year, allowing for a continuous supply of Icewine made from Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer and from the French hybrid Vidal.
Canadians avoid the use of plastic sheeting, but netting is spread in Canadian vineyards to protect the grapes from birds with an insatiable sweet beak. Inniskillin co-founder Karl Kaiser recalls one year when starlings stripped an entire vineyard of berries in 30 minutes. As temperatures drop to the legally required maximum of 18F, the grapes dehydrate, concentrating the sugars, acids and extracts in the grapes, intensifying flavors and complexity. Nicolas Quille, winemaker for Pacific Rim Winemakers, a subsidiary of Bonny Doon Vineyards, formerly worked for Vincor, the parent company of Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs in Canada. He says that nets are used on top of the vines as protection from birds, but nets are also spread under the fruit zone to collect the delicate clusters that might otherwise be bruised when falling to the ground.
When the time is ripe, Canadian pickers gather in the dark of night, when temperatures are the lowest and remain stable for an extended period, to carefully pick the frozen berries. The process is slow and usually only yields about 10% of a normal harvest. In the winery, the frozen grapes are pressed immediately, bypassing the crushing and destemming processes typically utilized for conventional table wines. Water mostly stays behind in the form of ice crystals, with the remaining juice flowing as a highly concentrated nectar.
But relying on the cold of night in a frozen vineyard is not the only way to make a sweet Icewine. At Pacific Rim Winemakers, an Oregon-based company that started out as part of Bonny Doon Vineyards (but will soon be an independent entity), a blend of mainly Muscat Canelli, with one-percent each Muscat Giallo and Viognier, is the frozen material for Vin de Glaciere. 'The grapes are frozen off the vine by placing them in a large sub-zero freezer for one month,' says Nicolas Quille. 'Our wine is much more fruit-driven than traditional Eisweins and we have no botrytis.' Quille says that when grapes are frozen on the vine, especially if they are covered for a period with plastic sheeting, it is practically impossible to avoid at least a little botrytis.
Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere 2005 is made from grapes grown on California's Central Coast and harvested at normal sugar levels, then frozen off the vine. When the weather turns colder, the grapes are pressed and the concentrated sweet juice is fermented with a floral yeast, for seven weeks, resulting in a sweet muscat wine, finished at 11.5% alcohol and 17% residual sugar. 'Vin de Glaciere may not have the same romance as a German Eiswein, but by using our process we can offer a consistent ice wine every year, and do so for less money,' says Quille.
Randall Graham, chief visionary and founder of Bonny Doon, is an unabashed Francophile, but Quille said that while Graham kept the continuity of Frenchified names on Bonny Doon wines, including Vin de Glaciere, 'we did not want to mislead the consumer into thinking that Vin de Glaciere was the same as an Eiswein,' says Quille.
The following Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs Icewines have Niagara Peninsula appellations, are finished at between 9.5% and 11% alcohol, and are available only in slender 375ml and 187ml bottles. The Vin de Glaciere is sold only in 375ml slender flute bottles. The wines are listed here in ascending order of sweetness, from 15.6% to 21.5%.
Inniskillin, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Sparkling Vidal Icewine 2004 ($90, 375ml, Icon Estates): Using ice wine as the base, Inniskillin winemaker Karl Kaiser, now retired, made this unusual sparkler with the 'Methode Cuve Close,' then left it on the lees for nine months before bottling. Cuve close produces medium bubbles that rise through the wine more sluggishly then the pinpoint bubbles resulting from the Champagne method of production. The color of this bubbly ice wine is a brilliant gold and the nose shows ripe, honeyed, tropical fruit, with ripe cooking apples, all following to a very sweet, nearly cloying flavor with hints of caramel and baking apples. 88
Bonny Doon Vineyard, California (United States) Muscat Vin de Glaciere 2005 ($17, 375ml): Randall Graham describes this wine as 'Wine of the Ice Box, adding that it is made mainly from Muscat Canelli, a.k.a., the 'Divine Ms. M grape.' The center of this unique wine is honeyed pineapple, with traces of citrus and orange. Its sweet spicy flavors are like biting into a slice of candied pineapple, bolstered by bracing acidity, all leading to a fresh, clean finish. Vin de Glaciere is more a late-harvest Muscat than an 'ice wine,' but either way, it's a great bargain. 90
Inniskillin, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Riesling Icewine 2004 ($80, 375ml, Icon Estates): Riesling is an ideal grape for making ice wine because the exotic aromatics and flavors of the grape come through with added complexity and depth in an ice wine. Citrus blossoms mingle with jasmine in the lovely nose of this wine and there's a waxy back note that usually means botrytis, a scant trace that adds to the wine's aromatic complexity. The flavors are richly textured, with dried stone fruits and honeyed notes. It finishes clean, crisp, and with good length. 90
Inniskillin, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Vidal Icewine 2005 ($60, 375ml, Icon Estates): This is a wine that is unique to Canadian ice wine production, although a few frozen Vidals have also been made in U.S. northern tier states like New York. Vidal is a French hybrid grape of Ugni Blanc and one of the parents of Seyval Blanc. Beyond the obvious grape difference, the aromatics of this wine hints more at ripe apricots, again with a faint trace of waxy botrytis, while the flavors are rich, creamy and layered with ripe stone fruits like apricots. Nicely balanced, this is a lovely wine. 92
Inniskillin, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Cabernet Franc Icewine 2004 ($100, 375ml, Icon Estates): Cabernet Franc Icewine is another Canadian anomaly; sweet red ice wine falls into the same oddity as sparkling red wine, like Australia's Sparkling Shiraz. No matter. This is a very stylized dessert wine with aromas and flavors of sweetened and spiced rhubarb. The flavors are carried nicely by full mouth-coating texture, good acidity, and notes of rhubarb and tart cherry. There is just enough refined tannin to let you know it's a red wine, but not enough to spoil the texture of this unusual and pricey ice wine curiosity. 89
Inniskillin, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Vidal Gold Icewine 2005 ($80, 375ml, Icon Estates): Select grapes for Vidal Gold are pressed during the coldest temperatures and, after fermentation, the wine is racked into oak barrels to obtain a delicate balance between oak and fresh fruit. Vidal Gold has a slightly darker color than the regular Vidal Icewine. The aromatics show sweet spices like cloves, while the tactile flavors are more candied fruits with spicy accents. It has good acidity and a moderately long finish. 89
Jackson-Triggs, Niagara Peninsula (Canada) Vidal Icewine Proprietor's Reserve 2005 ($20, 187ml, Icon Estates): Grapes for this delightful ice wine were harvested at 14F from December 14 through 21, 2005. The frozen grapes were pressed and fermented in stainless steel to retain the grape's vibrant character. Orange blossom notes are dominant in this wine, with traces of candied apricots. The flavors are sweet and tactile, but balanced with very good acidity. The wine has impressive length and structure. This is a great value wine for two to share with fresh fruit, berries and salty, blue-veined cheeses. 90
Let me close with one minor complaint and a kudo: Considering the steep price per small bottle, it seems only fair that packaging for Canadian Icewines be finished with something other than the hard golden wax disc that tops the cork. To insert a corkscrew, you should first pop off the disc, because driving a Teflon-coated corkscrew through a wax disc gums up the screw. But once applied, the wax disc hardens and sticks to the cork, requiring chipping away at the disc until it's removed. No such problem with Vin de Glacere, which is finished with a convenient screw cap. Ah, the problems we encounter just to get a good glass of dessert wine!