What is Canada known for? Mounties….maple syrup…trees, we definitely have trees!…mountains…snow…and ice wine. Canada has an international image of cold, snow and endless winters that, as much as it irritates us at times, we also secretly enjoy and, even, agree with.
Ice wine has its origins in Europe, notably Germany where, on occasions, the cold weather permitted the creation of wine from frozen grapes. The freezing concentrates the sugars in the grapes and the resulting wine is sweet and concentrated.
Cold weather is one thing that Canadians can count on (at least, until Climate Change permanently alters our winters). Unlike Europe which might or might not endure freezing temperatures, every year our winters dip into the minus range. This means that Canada can rely on Mother Nature to help us produce ice wine every year and has enabled us to become internationally known for this delicacy.
Icewine is produced by leaving grapes on the vine into the winter months. The freezing and thawing cycles of the late Fall/early Winter in Canada concentrate the sugars and flavours in the grapes and help produce the honeyed notes in the wine. Although it has mostly been made as a white wine with Vidal or Riesling grapes, you can now find more and more red ice wines, using such grapes as Cabernet Franc or Cabenet Sauvignon.
Before you run home and toss a bunch of grapes in the freezer, you should know that grapes must freeze naturally for the wine to be called icewine. If the sweet wine you are served is not called Icewine but something implying this idea, it may have been “helped” along in the freezing process.
I have seen, in Quebec, grapes harvested from the vine in the Fall and left in nets on top to freeze (makes harvesting easier), but grapes are usually left hanging on the vine until they are ready to produce the wine. Remember this before you volunteer to harvest icewine grapes and bring your woolies!
The grapes must further be pressed while they are still frozen, producing a very small amount of juice compared to their non-frozen brethren. This explains, in part, the high cost of icewine and the small bottles.
Last week, I wanted to enjoy a warm chocolate cake and some salted dark chocolate gelato from Stella Luna Gelato Café. I opened a bottle of 2008 Stratus Riesling Icewine (LCBO $39.95 for a bottle of 200 mL).
For those who fear that icewine might be too sweet, I can assure you that there is enough acidity in this wine to balance out the honey flavours. Which is not to say that it is not a sweet wine but, like an apple, it has some clean acidity that cuts through the sugariness. In other words, it is sweet but not cloying. At under $40, this is one of the lower-priced icewines and a good way to try the genre.
If you’re looking for a new experience, try some icewine with blue cheese on toast, dark chocolate and chili peppers, or, of course, a nice apple crumble. Don’t think of icewine as strictly a dessert wine and try it with a rich, savoury dish such as a cream-based pasta sauce or a ground veal shepherd’s pie topped with creamy whipped potatoes. I say icewine goes particularly well with French onion soup!