They say you should try not to die with a bottle of champagne in your fridge. For most Canadians, though, that leftover bottle is far more likely to be filled with ice wine.
“Everybody has a bottle of ice wine in a corner of the pantry somewhere, reserved for some unknown special occasion, and nobody ever drinks it,” says Anne Martin, head sommelier at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. “I think that, in Canada’s current wine culture, ice wine is really only given as a gift.” Or, worse, a re-gift, since it’s often pegged as the wine most likely to be re-gifted, making it, paradoxically, Canada’s most famous wine that nobody in Canada drinks. Martin says that even though the ACC offers it by both the glass and bottle, she generally orders under one case per year.
The good news, though, is that, somewhere out there, somebody is drinking it. Ever since Inniskillin’s Vidal Icewine Niagara 1989 won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at the 1991 Vinexpo in France, a lucrative market opened up abroad – especially in Asia. To meet the demand, many Ontario producers (as well as some in Quebec, Nova Scotia and B.C.’s Okanagan) also started making the wine to the point that the province is now pumping out 800,000 litres per year.
The Niagara region, having slowly established a serious ice wine tourism industry, has now come to rely upon it. This past January, for instance, some 250,000 visitors attended the Niagara Icewine Festival, an event that takes place in what would otherwise be the most dismally slow period of the region’s off season. Some even hope the timing of their visit will coincide with the harvest so they can pitch in and pick some frozen grapes. “The agri-tourism thing is big,” says Kimberly Hundertmark, the festival’s executive director. “Wineries and hotels have lists of folks that are interested, so they’ll call to ask if you want to come out in the middle of the night and join in.”
Hundertmark warns, though, that the ice wine harvest is an “arduous” and “ugly” task, joking that she once tried it herself and lasted about three minutes. The harvest, which takes place before dawn, can only be held after there have been three consecutive days under -8 C. At that temperature, the water has frozen, but the sugars in the fruit have not – the secret behind getting this syrupy-sweet wine.
Not only is the harvest an unpleasant task, it’s also unpredictable, another reason some winemakers don’t relish engaging in this labour-intensive, high-risk process. Despite the drawbacks, most do, however, since tourists expect to find a bottle in the gift shop of any Niagara winery and some three million tourists visit Ontario’s wineries every year.
Since ice wine is often sold in winery gift shops, as opposed to through a central distributor, numbers are hard to collect, but about half of Ontario’s VQA exports (totalling $40-million per year) is ice wine. “It’s a very important product to our region, our province and our country, because we can do it consistently and better than just about anyplace else in the world,” explains Doug Whitty, of 13th Street Winery in Niagara, pointing out that Germany and Austria, because of their warmer climates, can only make ice wine about three years in 10.
Whitty doesn’t make an ice wine at 13th Street. “It’s nice if you have the right conditions and you can get them off the vine before Christmas,” he says, though “it’s a gamble. No matter what approach you take to it.” Still, he says that the region should be proud of its product: “I think when you’re producing and marketing anywhere, particularly in this global economy, you have to look at what you do that’s special and what you do that’s unique and, here, that’s ice wine.”
The Air Canada Centre’s Martin also thinks that good ice wines help boost the profile of Canadian wines, but warns that counterfeits, a problem in foreign markets, as well as sub-standard brands aren’t helping much. “I just think it should only be made by people that specialize in ice wine and want to make dessert wine,” says Martin. “I think Ontario is moving away from that model of everyone making it, but I wish we could completely get away from it, so that all that would be available would be really high quality ice wine.”
At which point, Martin says, some Canadians might even crack that special bottle open and drink it.
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