During the first icewine harvest I attended, strictly as an observer, my car froze solid. The emergency brake seized in a fit of I-wasn’t-made-for-this pique. “There is nothing,” I’d been told by a veteran winemaker, “that will try your stamina and endurance more than making icewine.” In its refusal to budge from the edge of a snow-covered Niagara vineyard at 2 a.m., my Toyota seemed to concur. And I have to admit, it did make me review the wisdom of my plan to actually participate in a harvest.
But then, it’s not often you get to assist the birth of a Canadian product that utterly dominates the global stage. A small stage, to be sure—sales of icewine from Ontario, home to 85% of Canada’s production, amounted to about $32 million last year. But bragging rights are bragging rights, and in terms of market share, icewine may be our most successful export ever.
The irony of that is rich. Out in the world, no one considers Canada to be a wine-producing nation. To the European connoisseur, we’re a land of ice and snow, inhospitable to viticulture. And yet in winemaking, terroir—the unique mating of grape, land and climate—means everything. And it’s the bitter certainty of the Canadian winter that has made the prospects for icewine makers so sweet.
That, and some smart decisions.
A little over three decades ago, when negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement forced the removal of the low-quality Labrusca grape varieties that had dominated here, Canadian winemakers began to tinker seriously with European grapes and techniques. Icewine was a version of the German Eiswein, and because Canadian winters were colder, it was better. Industry leaders here quickly realized that to lock in that advantage, they had to impose certain rules. To wit: Icewine can only come from grapes harvested at temperatures of -8 C or colder. Each year the rows of grapes meant for icewine must be registered with the Vintners Quality Alliance by Nov. 15. The grapes must be left to freeze naturally on the vine, and must be harvested and pressed in a continuous process—no storing, cryogenically freezing or trucking them somewhere else. And they must be naturally sweet, made from juice measuring at least 35 Brix, using the North American scale for sugar concentration. (Table wine tends to fall between 20 and 25 Brix. At 45 Brix, you can feel your teeth rotting.)
The rules don’t specify that the grapes be harvested in brutal conditions, with brown grape clusters disappearing in darkness and an icy wind tearing at your cheeks. It’s just implied. Most growers choose to pick when it’s colder than -8 C because the results at that temperature barely squeak over the 35 Brix minimum. And that’s assuming a steady cold spell. What usually happens is temperatures fall through the day. If they fall too quickly, at -8 the grapes still won’t be thoroughly frozen. You squeeze them to see whether they give, and they do. So you wait till it’s -9 or -10, sometimes lower, till those “berries” are hard. By then it’s often 1 or 2 in the morning. You haven’t even started yet. And you have just a few hours to get a harvest in before the temperature starts to climb.
You could say Brian Schmidt embraces cold like this. Schmidt is the winemaker at Vineland Estates. One year he travelled to the North Pole with his brother, Allan. They took a load of icewine on that trip, maybe for irony’s sake. Outside at 1 a.m., with his truck’s headlights illuminating the vineyard, he barely seems to notice how frigid it is. “It depends,” he jokes, “on how much Scotch we’ve drunk before.”
Or maybe he’s just relieved that it’s early January and he’s already harvesting. This enormous vineyard is part of Glen Elgin Vineyard Management, owned by Rick Wismer. Like many Niagara winemakers, Schmidt contracts out a section. It’s Wismer’s three tall sons who are working with Schmidt tonight. One of them drives the roaring French-made Grégoire harvester that straddles the rows. As it inches along, it shakes the vines with oscillating metal rods to release the grapes onto conveyor belts that load them into insulated bins. The turbocharger exhaust is turned on the belts to keep them from stiffening in the cold.