Without a doubt the question that I get asked the most in life is “what is your favourite wine?”. I’m sure it’s the same for many of you. Of course, we all know that there is no “one best” wine, and that our answer will depend on occasions, moods and food.
That being said, I do have one constant – an affinity for the wines of the country I grew up in: Canada. I like the Syrahs and Merlots from British Columbia; the steely Rieslings and meaty Cabernet Francs from Ontario.
When I came to London as a sommelier 10 years ago, people were only talking about icewine. Nobody had even tasted a still Canadian wine. Now it’s quite the opposite, people don’t want to drink sweet wines and particularly not icewine because it is so extraordinarily sweet.
Because of this many sommeliers do not get the opportunity to taste very much icewine. And when they do its rarely against other icewines. Ironically, Canada has worked hard to shake its “icewine only” image but is now in danger of losing it all together.
This would be a tragedy. The icewines of the Niagara peninsula in Ontario are very special. They are among the great sweet wines of the world and as a profession we need to give this category of wine a better look.
These are beautifully crafted wines that are made with a sense of terroir. Maybe not a terroir in the traditional sense where you can taste the slate and limestone but they showcase richness and concentration that is quintessentially Canadian.
The heat of the Canadian summer gives sugar levels that could never be achieved in Germany or Austria, while the moderating effect of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie gives freshness to these massive stickies that is natural and unparalleled even within the other regions of Canada.
What really separates the Niagara peninsula from other sweet wine regions of the world is the diversity, both varietally and stylistically. There’s everything from Roussane to Tempranillo, and any vitis vinifera variety is allowed to be used in icewine production. Hybrids are not allowed apart from Vidal.
The fact that Canada is a new world region that doesn’t have tradition to adhere to is one of its most charming and, ironically, defining characters. Each variety keeps its character and makes such individually interesting wines, many of which you will never see elsewhere.
The main three varieties used are Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc. Most wineries will make at least two of these but again the stylistic differences are huge.
Riesling is still king as far as I am concerned. These are the only icewines that benefit from aging and actually develop more complex notes and aromas while retaining their balance of sugar and acids. Riesling also has the ability to showcase minerality in icewine and that is just not the case with any other varietal.
Vidal is by far the most planted varietal for icewine, and there is good reason for this. Apart from being hardy to the harshness of the Canadian climate Vidal has very thick skins that help it keep rot at bay. This makes for higher yields in a notoriously low yielding category – a real incentive for growers. And in Niagara there are a lot of growers.
Most wineries do not use 100% estate grown fruit. So when the farmers are the ones choosing what gets planted… of course the safe bet will win out much of the time.
We often think of sweet wines as being very-long lived, but actually this is not the case for most icewines. Vidal, especially, needs to be drunk in its youth as the freshness and vitality that we love it for dissipates and is not replaced with the most interesting secondary or tertiary characteristics.
Cabernet Franc is a relatively new variety to the icewine party. This grape is a bit polarizing in the winemaking community. Often the acidity is not as bright as it could be and the delicate red berry notes border on or above cloying. This needs a very skilled hand to give it personality and a delicacy.
The first red graped icewines were more of an afterthought. Unsold grapes were left on the vines to freeze with a view to hopefully turning a profit in the winter. Malbec, Shiraz and Pinot Noir are all popular.
Apart from the different varieties, there are many styles of icewine that will have a producer’s touch. The most obvious is the addition of barrel aging. Weight is so important and the use of older barrels to add a touch more complexity and richness to a fruit forward style works really well. Rarely will you have an icewine where the woody notes are actually apparent in the wine.
Icewine is a wine that is made in the vineyard and in the winery equally. So much of the production needs to be closely monitored in the vineyards. The grapes are netted and propane cannons are used to keep the birds at bay as the winter slowly creeps in. On top of that, freezing winds can take much of a crop leaving growers with as little as 10% of the grapes they could have harvested in October.
December to January is when the grapes are usually picked and the largest stylistic choice to the wine is made. When the grapes freeze for the first time, the cell wall of the skin starts to break down. This will slowly allow the grape juice to start to oxidize. It is important to remember that the lakes that border the Niagara peninsula moderate the area and keep it quite warm in comparison to the rest of Canada. Large parts of winter may be above freezing temperatures and definitely above the -8 degrees needed for legal harvesting of the grapes .
Berries picked early in the season after the first freeze will usually be a bit one-dimensional with an emphasis on honey and bright tropical fruits. Farmers will sometimes pick early to avoid any further loss of crop.
But leaving the grapes on the vine for subsequent freezes, allows the grapes to go through a ‘freeze-thaw-freeze’ cycle that adds a lot of complexity to the grapes and gives toffee, caramel, cotton candy notes.
It’s a tricky balancing act though. The more freezes and thaws that a grape goes through the riskier it is, since it increases the risk of rot. And many of the wines made in January after subsequent freezes are absolutely massive wines with huge sugar levels and confected sugar notes. Choosing when to harvest and after how many freezes and thaws really is the defining factor when it comes to making your style of icewine.
It’s expensive. Here’s why
What most people don’t realize is that icewine cannot be made on a yearly basis from the same vines. When the vines hold on to their berries late into the winter they do not go dormant as they are supposed to. They still continue to give energy to the berries and this will stress the vines out as it disrupts their normal lifecycle. It can take years for a vine to recover from this and vineyards planted for icewine have to be used once every three or four years only for ice wine production.
This has given rise to a large amount of blending in Ontario. Vidal is highly sought after for icewine but not for table wine production where it’s decidedly average. So do the maths. Making icewine only every four years from your vineyard can be tough when you sell your crop the other three years for a pittance, especially if you have something that isn’t desirable as a table wine at all, like Vidal.
This is something that needs to be taken into account when we talk about the price of these great wines. We think of icewine as expensive and it is, but when you start to account for all the variables it is actually a very well-priced product and gives a lot of value.
The wines of Canada have come a very far way (literally and figuratively) in a very short period of time. It seems hard to find a wine list without a token Canadian wine on it these days. I hope that as Canadian wines continue their climb out of obscurity and into the mainstream we do not lose sight of what a treasure icewines are. Let us not lose sight of these great wines that put Canada on the wine map of the world.
Four producers to LOOK OUT FOR
Currently seeking importer
Their Riesling Icewine is consistently one of my favourites. Much lighter and leaner in every way from a lot of the larger producers, these wines are elegant and feminine without having to show off. They age well over a 20 to 30 year period as well.
These guys made the first Vidal icewine in 1984 and it is still the benchmark for the variety today. This wine is structured and luscious with tropical fruit salad acacia honey notes that last for days.
Currently seeking importer
Their Cabernet Franc Icewine is a fantastic example of this sometimes overlooked variety. Delicate and spicy with seductive garden berries and bright acids that balance it all out.
Along with Inniskillin these guys have very good examples of barrel-aged ice wines, the old casks giving added butterscotch and caramel notes.