Living in California, I will sheepishly admit we are a spoiled bunch. Supporting the movement to “buy local, eat seasonal” is not a big stretch. Almost any time of the year, the state is blessed with bounty that others envy, from every imaginable fruit or vegetable to an abundance of grapes that produce some of the world’s finest wines.
But despite winning the “perfect terroir” jackpot, there is one type of wine California just can’t lay claim to: the bracingly rich and silky-smooth style of ice wine. Crafting it requires the kind of cold that most of us living in this sunny state seek to avoid. Bone-chilling, frostbite-causing, way below zero cold. And that’s when the harvest is just getting started for ice wine, a concentrated elixir made from grapes frozen naturally on the vine at 10 C. That translates to 14 F — by any sane person’s reasoning, pretty chilly for hand-harvesting grapes.
Understanding what would motivate a winemaker to risk frost-bitten fingers for the perfect balance of aroma and acidity is a bit like figuring out the appeal of those little lean-to ice shacks that dot the edges of the Great Lakes in winter, where fishermen spend hours looking for a lone lost fish. I’ve always suspected it is the result of a shared seasonal madness. But to find the real answer, there is no better place than Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Canada’s Ontario province, to learn all about what Canadians call “extreme winemaking.”
An 18th-century extreme sport
The creation of eiswein may have begun in 18th-century Germany, but two Canadian winemakers put ice wine on the modern-day map when they planted a few different varietals on an escarpment above Lake Ontario. It would take grapes with the perfect combination of high aromatics and high acids to sustain a naturally longer aging process. Trying their hand with the French hybrid vidal, a thick-skinned varietal particularly suited to harsh weather, along with hardy versions of Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin Winery created the first ice wines of the now-famous Niagara wine region in 1984.
Niagara also provided the perfect climatic conditions: warm enough to ripen grapes in the summer, but cold enough to reach well below freezing in winter. It is this combination, along with a soil rich in glacial sediments, that helps grapes held for ice wine retain their unique equilibrium between a tremendous concentration of sugar and a high level of acidity.
Winemakers play Niagara Hold ‘Em
Most of the 60 or so vineyards that dot Niagara’s tiny landscape engage in classic winemaking. There are just a few holdouts willing to take a big gamble and wait until sometime between mid-November and late March to harvest and press the frozen grapes. The yields are mercilessly low — often as little as 5 percent.
“Keep in mind the visual: the CSI moment,” said Debi Pratt, public relations manager at Inniskillin. “If you take a frozen grape and examine it under a microscope, there will be an amazing amount of ice crystals. In a barrel press, shards of ice will puncture the inside of the skin and allow only the juices to flow that have not yet frozen.”
That small amount of high-sugar juice — only one drop per grape — becomes ice wine. The fruit is gathered by hand in the middle of the night, because any sunlight can thaw the grapes. So if it doesn’t get cold enough, the harvest never happens. If it gets too cold, the press yields nothing. It is probably the riskiest type of winemaking. But Bruce Nicholson, senior winemaker at Inniskillin, thinks it is worth it.
The proof is on the palate
Nicholson, a native of the Niagara region, took the reins from Karl Kaiser in 2006, more than 20 years after his first job application at the winery. When asked why he’s willing to brave the cold and uncertain conditions to create ice wine, Nicholson’s answer was simple: “Taste it, and you’ll see why.” A small sip reveals a wine as rich as Chateau d’Yquem, with aromas of ripe peaches and apricots, but higher acidity provides a great foil to that intense sweetness.
“It has to be aromatic, because a sweet wine with no aromatic overtones is plain sugar water,” Nicholson explained. “It has to be late-ripening. It has to have relatively high acidity, and it has to have the right properties to withstand disease.”
“I want every person who tastes our ice wine to have a smile on their face and believe they got real value,” Nicholson said. When a half-bottle costs $80 or more, value is an important consideration.
But ice wine doesn’t need to be reserved for after-dinner sipping.
“The magic of this type of wine comes from the balance between a high degree of sugar and a high degree of acidity,” Nicholson said. “It can truly go with many things.”
Caroline J. Beck is a freelance food and wine writer and a strategic advisor to specialty food start-ups. Her articles and columns have appeared in such publications as the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, Michigan BLUE — Michigan’s Lakestyle Magazine, and The Olive Oil Source, the world’s top-ranked olive oil-related website, where she has served as editor since 2007. Caroline’s website, www.carolinejbeck.com, provides common sense advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the specialty foods business.
Photos, from top:
Vidal grapes frozen on the vine. Credit: Inniskillin Estate Winery
Karl Kaiser, left, and Donald Ziraldo of Inniskillin Winery. Credit: Anton Fercher for Inniskillin Estate Winery