|Home | Welcome | What's New | Site Map | Glossary | Weather Doctor Amazon Store | Book Store | Accolades | Email Us|
Weather Almanac for January 2003
COOL VINTAGE FROM FROZEN FRUIT
Five years ago, following my daughter's wedding, we took the long, leisure route back home to Vancouver Island via British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. There, we spent an added day touring the local wineries from Kelowna to Peachland.
As is the custom at each vineyard, we were encouraged to taste the results of the establishment's vintage. But at one, there was a brand that cost a toonie to taste: icewine. Our curiosity peeked we had heard of icewines but never tasted any we bought a glass or two.
Well, after the initial pleasant shock icewine is very different in taste and sweetness from conventional table and sparkling wines I was convinced that this was a rare treat. Icewine, Eiswein in German, is a truly delicious, though very sweet dessert wine. (After many glasses of conventional dry wines, the sweetness hits hard; it is most reminiscent of schnapps or triple sec liqueurs but with a lower alcohol content.)
As I write this piece, it is early January, and the local thermometer has risen above freezing all year. So too has the mercury in much of southern British Columbia, the mark of the current El Niño. It delayed the onset of prolonged cold winter weather across this province and much of southern Ontario until mid-month.
As a consequence, El Niño has delayed the harvest of icewine grapes which requires exacting weather conditions while lashing the vineyards with rain, freezing rain and winds. I understand that, as of this writing, in Ontario, Inniskillin Wines Montague Estate Vineyard, located at Niagara-on-the-Lake was able to beat El Niño during an early cold snap and harvested their icewine grapes on December 2, 2002. So too, the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery in Oliver, British Columbia harvested their icewine grapes in December. But for the most part, icewine grapes still hang tenuously on the vine, and many vineyards across Canada still wait for the proper harvest conditions.
El Niño has thrown a curve at growers this winter, but it is not the only weather influence on the production of icewines. More so than regular autumn grape harvests, the picking of the grapes for making icewines must fall into a very narrow weather window, even in a "normal" winter. As a result, not all Canadian vineyards produce icewines because the risk of loss is high. Those grapes destined to become icewine must be left on the vine until properly frozen. They are protected during this wait only by netting or plastic sheeting against hungry birds (and even bears) and adverse weather conditions (heavy or freezing rain, hail, high winds).
What is Icewine?
For those not familiar with icewine, it is a totally natural, unadulterated fermented-grape product when produced under the proper industry standards. Icewine has a golden or deep rich amber colour. Its extremely sweet taste presents a flavour reminiscent of combinations of apricot, peach, mango, melon, or other sweet fruits. It often reveals a nutty bouquet.
Icewines are enjoyed differently from regular wines. Icewine is usually served as a dessert wine in small cordial glasses. For maximum enjoyment, it is recommended that icewines be served alone and chilled for one or two hours to appreciate their unique flavours and aromas.
The secret of making icewine is to allow nature to freeze out most of the water in the grapes, which the winemaker must gently crush so as to extract only the concentrated nectar of the fruit. Grapes left on the vine well past the standard harvest period produce juice which combines high sugar and high acid content. This special combination makes icewine a truly delectable drinking experience.
Although any variety of grape can produce icewine, Riesling grapes are the classic choice, particularly in Europe. These grapes are prized for their high acid content, floral bouquet and ability to hang longer on the vine than most other varieties.
In Ontario, significant quantities of icewine are also made from the Vidal grape, a cross between European and North American white grape varieties. Normally grown to produce table wines, Vidal grapes have good yields and relatively thick skins that enable the grape clusters to withstand the elements and disease into the winter season.
White Riesling is the primary grape used in icewine production in British Columbia's Okanagan district, although Gewertztraminer, Traminer, Ehrenfelser and Vidal have also been successfully turned into icewine. The Okanagan Valley has the idea climate conditions to produce a unique red icewine. The region is far enough north to produce icewine yet has a growing season dry and sunny enough to cultivate red wine grapes. As a result, a few BC vintners produce icewine from merlot and pinot noir grapes. (Although considered somewhat less balanced than icewines made from white grapes, red icewines are even more rare and are thus higher priced.)
According to historical records, icewine or Eiswein was only "recently" discovered in 1794 in Franconia, a region of present-day Germany. The story goes, there had been an unexpected frost that year. Rather than give up on the grape crop, the local peasants decided to make wine from the frozen grapes. The result was a pleasant surprise, a small quantity of honey-sweet liquid with balancing acidity that was unlike anything previously produced. The wine was named Eiswein (pronounced ICE-vine.) which in German means Icewine.
Eiswein was considered a rare treat because in the moderate German climate, the idea conditions for producing it occurred only sporadically. Vineyard records show that Eiswein harvests were carried out in the Rhineland in 1813 during the Napoleonic War years, a period known for its harsh winters that contributed to the defeat of Napoleon in Russia. But it was not until the 1960s that German Riesling grapes were regularly left to freeze on the vine for the production of Eiswein.
Walter Hainle of Hainle Vineyards produced the first icewine, a Riesling vintage, in Canada in the Okanagan in 1973. Their first commercial release of the wine came in 1978. Two wineries Hillebrand Estates and Inniskillin in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula began experimenting with icewine production in 1983. Jost Vineyards, located along the picturesque Northumberland Strait in Nova Scotia, began producing Atlantic Canadian icewines in 1985.
How It's Made
Creation of icewine defies the modern convention to mechanize and speed the process. The primary challenge of the vineyard manager is to produce grapes that are sufficiently ripe and then to keep the crop on the vine until temperatures drop below minus 8 oC (18 oF). Typically, Canadian growers must hold off longer as national (VQA) wine-industry standards have set the harvest temperature at minus 15 oCelsius or lower (less than 5 oF). Thus, they must wait until the late December or early January before harvest can occur. In El Niño years, the wait can be particularly nerve-racking, so growers and winemakers must be patient and accept the risk.
The longer grapes remain on the vine, the greater chance they will fall to the ground and be lost or be eaten by hungry animals. Succulent bunches of sweet grapes often fall prey to sugar-hungry birds and other wild animals. In addition, rain can cause bunch rot, and wind, heavy rain, freezing rain, or hail can strip fruit off the vine or severely damage the hanging grapes.
To keep the grape clusters on the vine and protect them from animals, the vines are netted. The netting helps secure the clusters, but its primary purpose is to keep animals from eating the crop. Growers often find it difficult to keep the tasty grapes away from birds, and some have lost up to 80 percent of their crop to predators. In British Columbia the worry is birds and bears! Tilman Hainle of Hainle Estate Vineyards in Peachland, BC explained the loss of their entire 1998 crop this way: "We tried, but the bears tried harder."
The grapes must be both picked and pressed when still naturally frozen. Therefore, the air temperature should be between minus 15 and minus 8 oC (8 to 18 oF). (Ideally, frost should have hung over the vineyard for several consecutive days.) At these temperatures, the water crystallizes out of the grapes leaving behind the high concentration of grape sugars, fruit acids and extracts needed to produce the distinct flavours of icewines.
When the proper weather conditions finally arrive, vine-frozen grapes must be carefully, but quickly, hand-picked from the vines. The hand-picking requires many workers. For ten acres of vines as many as thirty workers are recruited. Unlike other grape harvests, the icewine harvest usually takes place in the winter dark, when temperatures have at last descended to targeted levels, and the mature grapes have frozen on the vine. Harvest typically begins in late evening (around 10 pm) when air temperatures have fallen sufficiently, and picking continues all night until shortly after sunrise. Frozen, rock-hard grape clusters are carefully plucked from the vines and placed in shallow crates for transport to the pressing operation.
Then, while still frozen, the grapes are gently pressed to extract their juice. Pressing must begin promptly when the first grapes are brought in from the fields. The grapes must be pressed within two hours to capture their prized juice at its peak. Pressing takes place outdoors to avoid thawing of the grapes. The light pressure used in pressing icewine grapes creates enough heat to melt the sugars and acids but leaves most of the water, in the form of ice shards, behind. With no liquid water content, the frozen grapes are hard on the presses.
Only a few drops of concentrated juice emerge from each grape; therefore, an entire vine may produce only a single bottle of finished icewine. As a result, the volume of wine that can be made from frozen grapes typically ranges from 10 to 15 percent of standard table-wine pressing volumes.
The press juice contains the ripe sugars, acids and concentrated flavours that characterize icewines. The concentrate contains sugar and flavour levels two to three times greater than grapes harvested at the normal time.
At last, the time has come for the winemaker's art to transform this precious juice into a finished product. The juice's high sugar content results in a slow up to several months fermentation. Bottling often takes place nine to ten months after the start of fermentation. The concentration of sweetness and acidity in the extract enables the wine to remain fresh over many years. The full maturing process is slow, and some experts believe a good icewine can still be unveiling its secrets even after 20 years.
The production of icewine in Canada is governed by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), a voluntary association of Canadian vintners that sets winemaking standards. By VQA icewine standards, the harvest temperature must be minus 8 oC or lower (less than 18 oF), and the grapes must be pressed while still frozen. This ensures that only the most concentrated juice, which the VQA requires be at least 35 percent sugar, is obtained from the grapes. It is strictly forbidden under VQA guidelines to freeze the grapes artificially (a practice used in some warmer climate wineries in other countries).
Canada Hot Bed for Frozen Grape
While Germany continues to be a prominent producer of icewine, other regions of the world have emerged as quality icewine producers Austria, New Zealand and the United States but none more so than Canada.
Blessed with an almost idea climate for icewine production, Canada emerged in the late 1990s as the world leader in icewine production (over 60 percent of Canadian icewine is sold to Asia). Canada's increasing international reputation for producing premium icewine has taken full advantage of its climatic gift.
British Columbia and Ontario Icewines have won many international prizes. In fact, British Columbia and Ontario icewines have rivalled German Eiswein in quality since they were introduced commercially in 1994. For example, in 1991, all 12 Ontario Icewines entered at the Intervin international wine competition in New York won Gold. No Icewine from any other country took Gold that year. Since then, Canadian Icewines have won numerous awards around the world, raising their profile to the top of the Icewine world.
To Purchase Notecard,
Now Available! Order Today!
The BC Weather Book: