Icewine has been commercially produced in the Niagara region since the early 1980s. With the ideal conditions to reliably craft the honeyed sweet wine year after year, Ontario has become one of the world’s leading producers.
Grapes – traditionally riesling, vidal blanc or cabernet franc – are left on the vine until a sustained temperature of ‐8C or lower is reached, which typically occurs any time from December to February. The icewine harvest in Niagara has gone as late as March, but there has yet to be a year where the necessary conditions don’t appear.
That said, there’s no telling when temperatures will plummet enough to freeze clusters of grapes waiting to be turned into intensely flavoured, lusciously sweet wines. Growers and wineries look for optimum temperatures between -10 and -12. These conditions will produce very sweet juice in the range of 35 to 39 degrees Brix (a measurement of sugar).
Roughly six hours are needed to harvest and press the grapes – usually during the night. Many wineries harvest by hand but mechanized harvesting is increasingly popular. Pressed while still frozen, the grapes yield a sweet concentrated juice that is highly flavourful. Juice yields for icewine grapes are significantly lower than for table wines – delivering only 15 per cent of the juice, which helps explain icewine’s premium price.
This year’s cold snap on Nov. 11 prompted three Niagara wineries – Cave Spring Vineyard, Reif Winery and Southbrook Vineyards – to take advantage of the earliest harvest on record. The previous record was Nov. 19, 2014. Last year’s harvest started Nov. 21.
This year’s picking date actually came three days earlier than the deadline to register with VQA Ontario inspectors. Icewine production is regulated in Ontario under the VQA Act. Producers must file with the agency by Nov. 15, listing the grape varieties, acreage and estimated tonnage expected. Each year’s icewine harvest is then monitored from the vineyard to the bottle to ensure quality and authenticity.
No Ontario wine may use the term icewine on its label unless certified by VQA Ontario. The grape and wine industry in British Columbia, which saw producers pick icewine on Halloween in 2002, follows similar strict regulations.
Most growers and wineries know in advance that they’re making icewine, so they often register well before Nov. 15. Viticulturist and oenologist Gabriel Demarco explains that Cave Spring filed the necessary paperwork more than three weeks ago but had yet to put their nets out to protect the icewine crop from being devoured by birds.
“We had just finished our table-wine harvest 48 hours earlier,” he says. “When the chance presented itself to pick icewine, we went back and forth before deciding to go for it.”
Demarco doesn’t see a difference in the overall wine quality. The early harvest meant that the pressed juice was cleaner, with less insoluble particles. Otherwise, he expects the 2019 riesling icewine to deliver similar pleasure and range of flavours as the 2017 that’s currently in market.
To my taste, icewines that come from earlier harvest dates tend to have more pure fruit flavours, while later picked examples, where grapes have gone through more dehydration due to experiencing multiple freeze-thaw-freeze cycles, can offer more complex and richer tropical flavours. But other vintage conditions, such as a cooler or warmer growing season, and winemaking decisions also greatly impact the flavours of the finished icewine.
“You could say what will make the 2019 icewine unique is that it’ll show the result of taking advantage of an opportunity that was presented to us,” Demarco says. “This has never happened before, so that will make it special.”
We’ll know how it all turns out some time in late 2020 or 2021 when these wines are released to consumers.
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