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Anthony Gismondi on Wine

Cold, harsh winter weather has always benefited wine growers in Canada.

Not only does it act as the perfect natural pesticide, but the freezing temperatures that blanket our vineyards most winters yield a much richer reward in the form of a super-sweet elixir we call icewine.

Not long ago Canadian icewine was little more than a curiosity in the world wine market. Today, the ultra-sweet dessert wine that routinely sells for more than $50 per half bottle can be found in key wine markets around the world.

Perhaps the best testimonial to icewine's new international stature is the appearance of counterfeit bottles in the Far East. It seems Canada's signature dessert wine is so popular in Taiwan, the third largest market for Canadian icewine after the U.S., that six different "Canadian icewines" were found in Taiwanese retail stores earlier this year that did not bear the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) certification seal. Subsequent laboratory analysis done in Canada later revealed five of the six icewine brands were fake.

Icewine, or eiswein as its German originators termed it, is a highly flavoured, intensely sweet dessert wine. By regulation, it must be produced exclusively from grapes that have been harvested naturally frozen on the vine, and pressed in a continuous process while the air temperature is -8 C or lower -- ideally in the -11 to -14 degree range.

The procedure involves picking frozen grapes -- or marbles as they are sometimes referred to -- and then crushing them while they are still frozen. At this point, the water content of the grape (now in the form of ice), is crushed and easily discarded.  What's left, and it isn't much, is a concentrated honey-like syrup that, when fermented, yields the much coveted nectar.

Normally, icewine grapes are at their best in late November or early December. After that the stress of hanging on the vine (where often they freeze and thaw daily) begins to take its toll on the quality of the fruit.

While the growers wait for temperatures to plunge, any number of natural weather catastrophes can beset the crop, from rain and snow to ice, rot and the unhelpful daily freezing-and-thawing cycle, not to mention predatory birds, bears, coyotes and deer. All of which explains why, whatever nectar is yielded at harvest (often in the dead of the night), you can expect to pay top dollar to sip it.

In Canada, where once dependable, late-November Arctic cold fronts are giving way to global warming, waiting for -8 C is fast become an annual test of nerves. Some wineries give up in December, choosing to make the best of a late-harvest crop rather than risk everything hoping for a deep freeze that may never come.

Yet for those who persevere and battle the elements, the reward can be significant. One thing is for sure -- it seems there is no shortage of grapes that winemakers are willing to experiment with to make icewine.

A survey of most provinces in Canada would turn up frozen examples of pinot blanc, ehrenfelser, chardonnay and vidal, and also of late pinot noir, merlot and cabernet franc. That's right, red icewine is all the rage at the moment. Clearly colour adds a much appreciated additional dimension to the glass.

As for what to drink in Canada this holiday season, it's the style of icewine that determines most preferences and while my vote is for elegance and acidity, many prefer the sheer overpowering sweetness of icewine.

For the ultimate sugar rush, I recommend vidal icewine. Ontario vintners have been incredibly successful churning out opulent, sugary icewine from vidal that consumers can't seem to get enough of it.

Canadian icewine expert John Schreiner, the author of Icewine: The Complete Story (Warwick Publishing) suggests that, especially in Ontario, vidal gives "buxom, Dolly Parton, Rubenesque wines, which are immediately appealing, grabbing you and giving you a big hug, with a bouquet which comes roaring out of the glass."

I personally believe riesling and gew├╝rztraminer make the best icewine because their naturally higher acidity helps balance the blast of sugar. In a sense, they are just a bit more sip-able.

Aging isn't much of factor when it comes to icewine. Vidal seldom has the balance and acidity to go long but riesling icewine will keep, and many do improve over a three to seven year period.

Perhaps the single best icewine in the country at the moment is the Jackson-Triggs Okanagan 2001 Riesling Icewine from B.C. Two years running it has captured the Best Icewine made from vinifera grapes at the Canadian Wine Awards. It is a huge golden-yellow wine streaked with honey, apricot and spearmint aromas and flavours.  Despite a syrupy viscosity, there is plenty of acid to balance out the wine. It doesn't get much better than this, which is why it will set you back $70 a half bottle.

If there's any icewine pattern in Canada it has to do with our best producers. In B.C., Gehringer Brothers, Inniskillin Okanagan, CedarCreek, Jackson-Triggs, Mission Hill and Lang Vineyards are among the leaders.

In Ontario, Inniskillin, Reif, Thirty Bench, Cave Spring, Jackson-Triggs, Chateau des Charmes, Konzelmann and Vineland Estate are top suppliers.


85/100 Gray Monk Ehrenfelser Icewine 1999
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Spicy, mineral, bruised apple, raisin nose, a bit old and tired. Light, round and somewhat lean with high acidity. Leafy, mineral, bruised apple, pear flavours. Past its prime. Drink up.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $49.99 (375 ml) Speculative - Charton-Hobbs
CSPC: 397968;   UPC: 778829000234
Producer: Gray Monk Estate Winery
Distributor: Charton-Hobbs
 
91/100 Gehringer Brothers Cabernet Franc Ice Wine Signature Series 2001
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Ripe apricot, mineral, tobacco leaf, spicy earthy nose. Rich, ripe, round and supple with spicy, crushed herbs, dried peach and apricot with a raspberry jam, mineral finish. Quite sweet but nicely balanced with good acidity. Fresh and attractive and unusual.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG
Prices: BC $46.99 (375 ml) VQA Wine Stores
CSPC: 567016;   UPC: 623871030077
Producer: Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery
Distributor: International Cellars Inc.

91/100 Gehringer Brothers Riesling Ice Wine Signature Series 2002
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Mineral, apple skin, apricot, honey nose but somewhat low in intensity. Round, juicy but soft with honey, apricot, mineral, baked apple flavours. Nice acidity, sweetness and balance but overall it lacks a bit of intensity. Good effort just the same.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $46.99 (375 ml) Specialty
CSPC: 504860;   UPC: 623871030039
Producer: Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery
Distributor: International Cellars Inc.
 
90/100 Gehringer Brothers Ehrenfelser Ice Wine Minus 9 2002
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Open orange, floral, mineral, green apple aromas with a touch of plastic pail. Fat and smooth on entry with good acidity on the finish. Ripe pear, honey, mineral, perfume citrus flavours. Quite elegant and balanced, not cloying. Well made.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG
Prices: BC $44.99 (375 ml) Direct Order - International Cellars
CSPC: 551739;   UPC: 623871030053
Producer: Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery
Distributor: International Cellars Inc.

88/100 See Ya Later Ranch Ehrenfelser Icewine 2002
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Quite mineral, leafy, pear citrus perfumed nose. Light, soft, round with low acidity. Citrus, honey, apricot mineral flavours but quite low in concentration and acidity and not overly sweet. More like a late harvest wine than icewine.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $49.99 (375 ml)
CSPC: 079467;   UPC: 624738011031
Producer: Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards
Distributor: Atlas Wine Merchants

89/100 Saint Vincent Chardonnay Icewine Private Reserve 2000
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Made from 30-year old vines. Butter, lees, cigar, honey, marmalade nose, pretty unusual combination. Rich, intense and fairly sweet with mineral, honey, bruised apple, raisin, leafy flavours. Quite high acidity on the finish. Perhaps a bit tired but lots of stuffing.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $74.90 (375 ml) Specialty
CSPC: 624387;   UPC: 6640303200004
Producer: Domaine Combret
Distributor: Stile Enterprises Ltd.
 
89/100 Lineage Gamay Icewine 2001
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Very pale gold rose colour. Big mineral, spicy, quince and apricot nose with some vinyl hints. Soft, round, earthy, mineral, stewed apricot and spicy strawberry flavours. Not super sweet or high acid but reasonably well balanced if a bit alcoholic.
Tasted: 2003-12-14 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $39.90 (375 ml) Specialty
CSPC: 638189;   UPC: 664030012817
Producer: Domaine Combret
Distributor: Stile Enterprises Ltd.
 
91/100 Inniskillin Okanagan Vidal Icewine 2000
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Big mineral, nectarine, marmalade aromas with notes of vinyl, honey and mint. Ripe, round and balanced with good sugar and acidity balance. Ripe apple, apricot, marmalade flavours dominate with a fresh citrus, mineral finish. An elegant style with good acidity and definitely a star for Vidal.
Tasted: 2003-04-30 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $51.99 (375 ml) Specialty
CSPC: 558452;   UPC: 620654558452
Producer: Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Inc.
Distributor: Atlas Wine Merchants

92/100 Hawthorne Mountain Ehrenfelser Icewine Gold Label Series 2000
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Yellow colour. Open orange marmalade, floral, mineral citrus characters. Ripe rich, apricot marmalade mineral flavours. Very intense and full flavoured in the finish without any cloying flavours. Perhaps the best expression of the Ehrenfelser is Icewine. 
Tasted: 2003-03-01 by AG-ST
Prices: BC $49.95 (375 ml) Specialty
Producer: Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards
Distributor: Atlas Wine Merchants

92/100 Inniskillin Okanagan Riesling Icewine Dark Horse Vineyard 1999
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Young fresh nose of apple and nectarine and a floral honey character. Slightly skinnier than the Lang riesling but there's a wonderful mix of nectarine skin, apricot and mineral flavours. Very good acid/sugar balance. Its long persistent finish is a touch alcoholic.
Tasted: 2001-09-01 by AG
Prices: BC $60.00 (375 ml) Winery
Producer: Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Inc.
Distributor: Atlas Wine Merchants

93/100 Jackson-Triggs Riesling Icewine Proprietors' Reserve 2000
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Open mineral, green apple, and peach aromas with touch of Vaseline/plastic pail and slate highlights. Big intense peach green apple and citrus flavours. Intense with very high acid and sugar. We like the balance but it's a blockbuster. Excellent icewine.
Tasted: 2001-09-01 by AG
Prices: BC $52.99 (375 ml) Specialty
Producer: Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate
Distributor: Atlas Wine Merchants


Sun Peaks Resort and the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society hold their icewine festival in January. The 6th Annual Icewine Festival runs Jan. 22 to 25 at Sun Peaks with a progressive tasting where participants stroll the alpine village, with more than 20 wineries at a number of locations. Seminars and winemakers' dinners, along with lift tickets, round out the perfect week in the snow.

Ontario holds an icewine festival every winter under the banner of Niagara Grape & Wine Festival Icewine Celebrations. The 9th Niagara Icewine Festival runs Jan. 16 to 25 and will celebrate Ontario-made icewine. The two-weekend event includes gala evening tastings, outdoor ice bars, winemakers' dinners, roasting chestnuts, sleigh rides and, if the weather cooperates, late night icewine grape picking.

For more information on either festival, log on at www.thewinefestivals.com (Okanagan) and www.grapeandwine.com (Niagara).

Written By: ag
Anthony Gismondi
Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi is a Canadian wine journalist and one of North America's most influential voices in wine. For over 30 years, he has been the wine columnist for The Vancouver Sun. The twice-weekly column is distributed across Canada through Postmedia Network to millions of readers. In addition, Anthony co-hosts the BC Food & Wine Radio Show, broadcast in 18 markets across B.C. and available as a podcast on Spotify, Apple and iHeart Radio and more. He launched Gismondionwine.com in 1997, attracting one million users a month from 114 countries. It continues to be a valuable resource of full tasting notes and intelligent wine stories and videos for the trade and consumers.