Icewine - A Canadian Speciality Draws on German Traditions
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed March 5, 2004. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
(GuamDiner.com note: Excellent quality icewines can be found at the DFS Galleria in Tumon.)
Originally a rare German treat called "Eiswein," which is pronounced "Ice-vine," sounding a lot more like its English translation than it looks, icewine has been joyously adopted by Canadian wine makers - particularly in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula but also in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and elsewhere - and has become the one Canadian wine export that's widely known and respected, if only rarely actually seen and tasted, around the rest of the world.
It's made by allowing ripe grapes to remain hanging on the vines long after the usual harvest time, then bringing them in after the season's first hard freeze and pressing out their juice while the fruit is still frozen. The freezing concentrates all the fruit sugar and much of its "physiologically mature" flavor into just an intense drop or two from each grape, resulting in a tiny quantity of fantastically sweet wine.
Virtually all German Eiswein and a good share of Canadian icewine is made from the noble Riesling grape; Canada has also made good use of the French-American hybrid Vidal, which in my experience makes a less earthy but very clean and luscious icewine. A bit of red icewine is made from Cabernet Franc, and at least one Ontario producer, Inniskillin, makes a sparkling icewine that's extremely expensive and, how can I describe it, deliciously bizarre.
True icewine can be made only in a few parts of the world where the summers are long enough and mild enough for wine grapes to thrive, yet where winters are cold enough to bring rock-hard winter freezes, but without being so cold that vines die back to their roots. This odd three-way climate combination seems to be most likely in places along the extreme northern edge of the temperate zones where wine grapes can grow, typically in regions like Niagara and the Okanagan, New York's Finger Lakes and Germany's Rhein and Mosel valleys, where bodies of water provide cooling in the summertime and offer a bit of frost protection in winter.
A few producers in more balmy climates have sought to get in on the icewine excitement by freezing late-harvested grapes in commercial freezers. Regulations in most countries forbid calling this product "icewine," a restriction that the wits at California's Bonny Doon avoid by calling their freezer wine "Vin de glaciere," or "refrigerator wine."
Wine experts argue whether there's any perceptible difference between natural icewine and this freezer-made product, but the conventional wisdom holds that the real thing gains earthy complexity from the grapes' extended hang time on the vines, which allows ample time for the fruit to achieve full "physiological maturity."
While we're on the subject of Canadian wine, you may have noticed an unfamiliar acronym: VQA, short for "Vintner's Quality Alliance," is a certification - akin to the French AOC or Italian DOC - that Canadian producers may seek. Its presence on the label guarantees that the grapes used in the wine were grown within the geographical area and that the wine was taste-tested by a panel to ensure that it met standard for that region's wines. It should be noted that VQA status is optional, and I'm told that many of Canada's top artisanal producers don't seek it.
WEB LINKS: If you want to know more about Canadian wines, here are a few good links:
* WineRoute is the official site of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
* Wine Access appears to be Canada's leading wine magazine.
* Finally, although frequent WineLoversPage.com contributor Natalie MacLean writes for as international an audience as I do, she is based in Canada and often addresses Canadian wine topics and reports on LCBO wines at her website.