Our fingers stiffen quickly in the cold. It’s one degree (Celsius) below freezing. The clusters of grapes we’re struggling to snip into our bins are browned, some of the berries shriveled, and the vines shimmer with ice crystals and a dusting of snow.
What’s wrong with this wine-harvest picture? Not, as you might expect, the fact that we’re picking grapes on a very chilly day in January. The problem is that it’s not cold enough! Also, the sun is shining. The real crew on this job would be working in -8°C temperatures or below, and they’d likely be picking in the dark. Or, more accurately these days, they would be running picking machines in the dark.
I’m in the Niagara Peninsula region of Ontario, with a small band of wine journalists on a mission to take a deep dive into growing, making—and tasting—icewine, the sweet, aromatic, vibrant crown jewel of this wine country. Our itinerary on “picking day” ominously mentions “lunch in the vineyard.” (Ah, wine country!) And, in fact, Inniskillin estate chef Tim Mackiddie bounds outside in a short-sleeved T-shirt to grill up some seriously tasty appetizers for us once we’ve cried uncle on the picking front. Layers of down notwithstanding, though, we don’t last long. Our hosts take pity on us and move lunch inside, where we continue our crash course on why this part of Canada excels with the gorgeous elixir, and why half-bottles of the stuff are pretty darn expensive.
For starters, it freezes here. Icewine is made from grapes (white or red, surprisingly enough) that have been left to hang on the vine, past normal harvest times, until their sugar levels are extremely high, they’ve dehydrated and concentrated, and temperatures drop to at least -8°C, freezing the grapes solid (some producers go lower than that). They’re picked and pressed in that state, which might happen anytime from December into February, depending on tempertures; in 2003, it didn’t get cold enough until March 12 to pick.
We’re lucky enough on this visit to Inniskillin—the first estate winery in Canada, and unrivaled king of icewine (now under the direction of winemaker Bruce Nicholson)—to watch the brown fruit go into the basket presses and witness first-hand why Icewine just might be the worst business model ever conceived by the wine industry: The frozen water in the grapes stays behind, and only a shockingly thin trickle of concentrated juice drips from the presses. It takes 7 to 10 times more fruit to make Icewine than average table wine—specifically, 7,000 berries for a 375 mL bottle made from Vidal grapes, the hybrid white variety that cornerstones production here. One vine produces a single half-bottle.
At its best, though, the wine is far more than sweet and syrupy. The sugar is balanced by bright, racy acidity that keeps your mouth watering for more. And depending on the variety it’s made from (besides Vidal, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Franc all do well), aromas and flavors run the gamut from beautiful florals through tropical fruits, stone fruit, and honeyed citrus to strawberry (in Cab Franc). Layered underneath is often a hint of minerality, from the sandstone- and limestone-rich soils of the ancient lake bed that this area once was.
Although icewine is sweet, it would be doing it a disservice to box it in as only a dessert wine. Pairings during our January visit worked beautifully: foie gras, sausage, pâté, onion soup, Asian-spiced lobster, pork belly, and smoked beef short ribs (with a Cab Franc version).
And cheese! Here’s a tip for world travelers. If you’re headed to a country known for cheese, stop in Duty Free first and nab some Inniskillin. (It will be there. It almost always is.) Pick up some pungent local wedges on your way to the hotel, and you’ll have the ultimate comfort snack to settle in with.
These bottles—from Inniskillin and beyond—are worth searching out.
Inniskillin 2017 Riesling Icewine
Amazingly vibrant acidity in this bottle ($90, 375 mL) belies delicate florals, apple, and peach and balances a rich and concentrated palate.
Inniskillin 2017 Vidal Icewine
Core to the winery’s production, this wine ($55, 375 mL) is lush with honeyed stone fruit and tropical aromatics, but balanced with minerality and faint herbal notes.
Inniskillin 2017 Gold Vidal Icewine
The difference here is three to four months in French oak, which lends appealing warm spice and a creamy mouth-feel around peach compote. A rich and elegant wine ($80, 375 mL).
Jackson-Triggs 2015 Reserve Vidal Icewine
From sister winery to Inniskillin, this crisp and lively wine (now available in the U.S. in 187 mL bottles, $25) is beautifully aromatic, with honeysuckle giving way to peach.
Reif Estate 2015 Grand Reserve Vidal Icewine
Highly perfumed, this beauty from Reif ($225, 375 mL) harbors stone fruit and honeyed tropicals but at the same time is fresh, alive, and balanced.
Stratus 2017 Riesling Icewine
The wines from strikingly modern Stratus are built on freshness and acidity, the icewines in particular picked at lower-than-average sugar levels. This bottle ($38, 200 mL) is lively and structured, with delicate florals and stone fruit wrapped in intriguing textures.
Two Sisters 2013 Riesling Icewine
Lush and rich (in keeping with the traditional magnificence of Two Sisters winery), this Riesling icewine ($41, 200 mL) has a lovely nutty quality behind dense peach and pineapple flavors.