Ontario is internationally acclaimed for its Ice Wine (also spelled Icewine). However, it is said to have been discovered by accident in Franken, Germany in 1794 by farmers trying to save their grape harvest after a sudden frost. Winemakers that year had to create a product from the grapes available for harvest. The resulting wines had an unusually high sugar content, along with great flavour. As a result, this new technique became popular in Germany and by the mid-1800s, the Rheingau region was making what the Germans called Eiswein.
In the 1980s, Ontario’s vintners recognized that their cold winters would provide the perfect conditions for producing exceptional Ice Wine. In 1984, Niagara’s Inniskillin winery was the first Canadian winery to produce Ice Wine for commercial purposes. This wine was made from Vidal grapes and was labelled “Eiswein”. Canadian Ice Wine soon became popular and more Canadian producers picked up the idea. The international breakthrough of Canadian Ice Wine came in 1991, when Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal ice wine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at VinExpo in Bordeaux, France. By the early 2000s, Canada was established as the largest producer of ice wine in the world. In 2001, the EU recognized Canada’s high standard for producing Ice Wine and began allowing its importation.
At the normal fall harvest time, producers leave select vineyards unharvested and wait for winter to set in. Being left on the vine, the grapes are vulnerable to rot, high winds, hail, hungry birds and animals. The grapes are harvested in the middle of the night at temperatures below -8°C. The grapes are picked by hand and must be pressed immediately while they are still frozen.
Only about 10 to 20% of the liquid in these frozen grapes is used for Ice Wine. The juice is so sweet that it can take from 3 to 6 months to make ice wine. When it’s all done, wines have around 10% alcohol by volume (ABV) and a range of sweetness from around 160 to 220 grams/litre of residual sugar, which is two times the sweetness of Coca-Cola.
Grapes that grow well in cold climates make the best ice wines. These include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc.
To produce Ice Wine, summers must be hot and winters must be cold. Of all the wine-producing regions in the world, only Ontario has a winter climate consistently cold enough to produce Ice Wine every year. Even Germany cannot produce an Ice Wine every vintage.
Regulations in Canada, Germany, Austria, and the U.S. prohibit dessert wines from being labeled as ice wine if grapes are commercially frozen. Instead, these products are usually labeled as “iced wine” or simply “dessert wine.” So, if you’re looking for true ice wine, be a wary shopper and read the labels or look up the production information.
Ice Wine is not just a dessert wine, but if you do serve it along side dessert, make sure the dessert is less sweet than the Ice Wine. Pairing suggestions include fruit cobbler or pie or cheesecake. White Ice Wine goes well with apple pie, cheesecake, vanilla pound cake, ice cream, fresh fruit panna cotta, fruit compote, crème brûlée and white chocolate mousse.
If you are serving dark chocolate, it pairs well with Cabernet Franc or other red Ice Wine. White chocolate goes well with a Riesling or Vidal Ice Wine.
White Ice Wine pairs well with savoury dishes, such as chicken liver pâté, oysters or foie gras. These salty foods enhance the wine’s sweetness. The acidity of the Ice Wine cleanses the palate between bites.
Spicy foods, such as spicy chicken or Thai curry will pair well because the sweetness of the wine will control the heat of the food while maintaining the flavours of the spices.
White Ice Wine pairs well with snack foods such as soft cheeses or blue cheeses. Red Ice Wine goes well with nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans.
Ice Wine should always be chilled, whether that be for 15 minutes in an ice bucket or 2 hours in the fridge before enjoying. It can be served in an Ice Wine glass, which is a narrow, tulip-shaped long-stemmed glass or it can be simply served in a white wine glass. A standard serving is about 1.5 ounces or 45 ml per person.
Once opened, unlike other wines, Ice Wine will keep in the fridge for several weeks.