Good wine is not what first comes to mind when talking about the many qualities that make Canada one of the countries with the highest standard of living in the world. That is because world class viticulture is a new phenomenon. Until the mid-1980s, it is fair to say, there was hardly any good wine made in Canada at all.
Let’s go back in history a little: as in the United States, until 1927 a strict prohibition was enshrined in law. Later, until the mid1970s, it was very difficult to obtain a license to produce wine, or to sell it. The government could never be accused of wanting to make life too easy for wine lovers. Even today the sale of wine is strictly regulated, especially in Ontario, where the provincial government has a monopoly of distribution through the network of 850 shops knows as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The only exception is that producers are allowed to sell their own wine at the vineyard.
Not much in terms of tradition then, but, as we shall see, a lot of determination and imagination. The climate does not help. As is well known, vitis vinifera, the species of vine that produces the best berries for winemaking, grows at its best between 30 and 50 degrees of latitude, north or south of the equator. The territory of Canada is almost completely outside of this range, except for a few regions along the border with the States, and it is here that some excellent wine is now being produced. The southern parts of the provinces of Ontario in the East and British Columbia in the West are now well established as homes of award winning wines. Something is happening also in Québec e Nova Scotia and we may soon hear more.
During some recent trips to Canada I set myself the goal of trying the best local wines I could get a hold of ...or afford: some of the top bottles are very expensive! I have been surprised by several excellent dry whites. Some full bodied chardonnays I found well to be complex and balanced, with an intriguing but not invasive acidity, reminiscent of some of the best Burgundy. But the real surprise was icewine (which in Canada is written in one word, to distinguish it from American ice wine).
Icewine is made with grapes that have been left to dry on the vines until winter, when they are literally frozen. By tackling climate, and transforming it from an obstacle into an opportunity, Canada has become the main icewine producer in the world, overtaking Austria and Germany, the traditional leaders in this technique. In the vineyards of Niagara, in Ontario, they now produce 90% of all Canadian icewine, which in turn represents 85% of total world production. Therefore Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque village of 15,000, dotted with flower gardens and colonial houses, can now credibly claim the title of world capital of icewine.
The soil here is predominantly clay with a chalky and limestone component. It is mostly flat, apart from a slight slope to the North, on the shore of Lake Ontario, which allows for better drainage.
The proximity of the huge lake, which never freezes even in the harshest winters, is vitally important for the moderation of the microclimate. The warm breeze coming from the great mass of water lengthens the fall season and allows the vine to express itself despite the difficult latitude of the region.
The first to believe in icewine in Canada was Walter Hainle, a German who had immigrated in 1970. By 1978 his vines in British Columbia were ready for the production of the first Canadian commercial icewine, on the Pacific Coast. Going far beyond expectations, he began to receive attention and awards. But if Canadian icewine was born on the Pacific coast, it grew to its world renown on the banks of Lake Ontario.
Hainle had … well, broken the ice, but it was Inniskillin, founded in 1974 in Niagara, Ontario, by Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo, which soon became the best known producer, at home and abroad. Today it is a giant business of over 700 hectares, and it is here that I started my tour of Ontario vineyards. The curious name comes from that of an Irish Rifle Regiment, in which the first owner of this farm had served in the XIX century. After winning an important international prize, the Prix d'Honneur at Bordeaux's Vinexpo in 1991 with its Riesling icewine, Inniskillin was the first to present this special Canadian product to the world market.
|With Gary Pillitteri in his cellar|
After two giants I visited a small producer, Rancourt. Only 10 hectares, it is a boutique production with an attached B&B. Eric Pearson wanted to make wine as a child and so he studied biochemistry, the subject he thought would be closest to his passion. Today Rancourt is more than just a promising upstart among young Niagara winemakers.
Also PondView, another small producer, boasts Italian origins. The Puglisi family emigrated to Canada in 1965. Luciano, the founder, had already been producing wine in Sicily, but found very different conditions here. Adapting to the climate, he has reinvented the company and managed to create a niche product that holds its own against the most prestigious neighbors.
Less famous than Hainle, Ewald Reif also emigrated from Germany to Canada, and bought his first plot of land in 1977. The family had been making wine in the Rhine Valley for at least four centuries, and here they found familiar conditions. In 1983, the vineyard was ready to produce, and icewine was the most logical choice. Reif Winery is known to be among the first companies in the region to try to minimize the use sulfites, but without blindly following an extreme organic trend.
His nickname is JL, he comes from the Loire valley and studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Jean-Laurent Groux has created an avant-garde company. Already on arrival the eye is struck by the ultramodern architecture and equipment of the Stratus winery. Clean and straightforward in the flavors of his wines as the buildings are in their architectural lines, JL’s products try to minimize human, chemical and physical intervention in the work of nature. It is called Stratus because JL tries to make wine by overlaying successive “layers” of flavors and aromas that come from individual varieties: in fact, he is a pioneer of a relatively new concept that is only gradually taking on in Niagara: assembled icewines instead of the more traditional single variety products.
Icewine is mainly made with white grapes (chardonnay, gewurtztraminer and riesling). These are the most suitable for the rigid climate and the type of extreme ripening that is required. Cabernet franc stands out among the red berries, and recently the production of Cabernet sauvignon has increased somewhat.
The most typical variety of icewine is however Vidal. This is a hybrid that Jean-Louis Vidal obtained in 1930 by coupling trebbiano grapes of vitis viniferae with another hybrid grape, the “rayon d'or”. This, in turn, was obtained by Albert Seibel, a French physician who, from the late XIX to the early XX century, was passionate about viticulture and in particular enjoyed creating new kinds of grapes. Apparently he produced and catalogued several hundred! Seibel obtained the rayon d'or (aka Seibel 4986) by coupling “aramon du gard” (of the species vitae rupestris) to another hybrid that Seibel had previously crossed. It is important to note that the vidal has proven its toughness in the rigid climates, in part thanks to its thick skin. Its high content of potential alcohol and its acidity make it particularly suitable for the difficult fermentation required to produce a good icewine, sweet and balanced.
The harvest takes place in winter, usually in December, but sometimes even as late as January. It happens almost always at night, because by law at the time of picking the temperature must not be higher than 8 degrees Celsius below zero. Additionally, at night the temperature is more stable than during the day, and this is useful because higher temperature fluctuations might cause the ice crystals inside the berries to melt, with consequent dilution of the must. If 8 degrees below zero is the maximum allowed temperature, it is often down to 15 below when the harvest takes place. This makes the work more difficult and further reduces the yield, but rewards the wine maker with a higher concentration and therefore a higher quality.
The grapes must be pressed immediately, so that the icicles in the berries keep as much water as possible from ending up the must. The latter needs the highest possible concentration of sugar and other substances. The intense cold also prevents the formation of botrytis cinerea, (the fungus one finds on the grapes of semillon and sauvignon blanc which are used to make Sauternes) and for this reason icewine maintains a higher acidity and a lower alcohol content than the Sauternes (ad other wines, like Hungarian Tokaji) affected by the “noble rot”.
Because of this high concentration and purity from fungi, the sugars are of extreme quality but quantities are just as extremely limited. Each berry yields, on average, only one drop of must. This is necessary because the law requires, at a minimum, 35 percent of sugar in the must, higher than that of the German or Austrian Eiswein or Luxembourgish vin de glace.
Harvesting is hard work for men and equipment. It is not uncommon for fingers to be frozen or presses to break down, as both are subjected to enormous stress. Therefore it is not surprising that icewine is very expensive. To make it more accessible to the market, manufacturers always use small bottles, usually 200 ml.
Often the berries are so hardened by the cold that a considerable amount of sugar and other substances remains trapped in them along with the ice crystals. To make full use of it, wineries often leave the pressed grapes to warm up a little and then, after a few days, proceed to a second press. The product of the latter may not be labeled icewine but is classified as “select late harvest”.
Another key requirement of the icewine is to have at least 125 grams of residual sugar. The yeasts have a hard time doing their work in the presence of so much sugar, the fermentation starts with difficulty, and is very slow. For this reason they nicknamed icewine “dessert in a glass”!
If you do not meet the temperature requirements of the grape and sugar grade above, the producer is not allowed to market the wine as icewine, but only as a select late harvest. This is, however, not really a fall back position, but a great wine on its own merits. It is less intense and therefore easier to appreciate for the less experienced drinker, also because it is more easily paired to a wider variety of foods. And, last but not least, it is much less expensive.
It is recommended to serve icewine at 10-12 ° Celsius. The best pairings for icewine, apart from the Asian cuisine mentioned earlier, are the sweet desserts such as tart, apple pie or baked fruit in general, chocolate, foie gras. But manufacturers also recommend trying it as an ingredient in seasonings for fatty or stuffed fish. There is a wider choice to match select late harvest: paste or risotto with mildly spicy or sweet tendency sauces, white meats with jam (the gravy that Canadians often accompany to turkey), soft cheese.
Two small curiosities: there also exists a grappa of icewine, produced by the Magnotta estate. And on the market one can buy ice cider (written in two words) made with very mature apples which are picked, left to freeze outside in December and then squeezed to temperatures down to -15 °C.
Canadian icewine is young, just a little more than twenty years old. Producers, largely emigrated from Europe (Italy, Germany, Austria, France) have brought with them knowledge and traditions but the Canadian conditions, the terroirs one could say, are unique. Therefore there is great unexplored potential, the farmers and the wine makers continue to experiment, they have not yet found their limits.
Wine is an important novelty in the economy of some Canadian provinces, and most of the icewine production is exported. In fact, most Canadian wine exports consist of icewine. The global wine economy today is changing rapidly. The main oenological news of the last ten years, of which we still see only the tip of the iceberg, is China, both as wine producer (already the 6th in the world) and as a large consumer market.
Canadian icewine is appreciated in East Asia because it can be paired very successfully with moderately spicy and sweet and sour dishes of Chinese (but also Thai and Vietnamese) cuisine. Its smoothness contrasts well with the spices, and the high residual sugar is a perfect match, especially for Cantonese cuisine. In 2013, China bought more than 40% of Canadian icewine production, and another 30% in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. So three quarters of the production (over one million liters) goes to East Asia. Unfortunately, as for other famous wines, icewine is often counterfeited.
The market changes and so does the prevailing taste for wines. Walter Haine, the pioneer I mentioned earlier, announced in 2015 that he wanted to abandon the production of icewine and switch to Pinot Noir. He hopes to earn more. It is difficult to understand how, given the current sky-high prices of icewine, which are among the most expensive wines in the world. It's hard to buy anything under 30-40 Canadian dollars (€ 25) for a bottle of 200 cl of good quality. Royal Demaira sold the 2006 vintage of its Chardonnay icewine for C$ 30,000 for half a bottle, a 2002 today goes over 200,000 dollars (yes, two hundred thousand), the most expensive ever. But old Walter certainly knows what he is doing.
We cannot yet say what the potential of icewine for aging is. Even the best icewines have been aging in the bottle for too little time for a tasting to provide an informed opinion. But there is sugar and there is acidity, so the conditions are there to hope for a long and successful evolution. Below are my impressions about icewines I tasted in 2015 which were kindly offered to me by the relevant Ontario wineries.
Inniskillin icewine 2013, vidal, 9.5%
Straw yellow, consistent. Ripe apricot in the nose, buttery sensation prevails in the mouth. Score: 86
Inniskillin sparkling icewine 2012, cabernet franc, 9%
Light cherry color, delicate effervescence. Prune aroma. Moderately fresh. Score: 84
Inniskillin icewine 1990, vidal, 12%
Dark orange color. Overripe apricot in the nose, sugar cane. In the mojth one feels clearly the excessive oxidation, it was probably a great wine a few years ago. Score: 80
Pillitteri icewine 2011, cabernet sauvignon, 11.5%
Still young, it invites the taster with tenuous aromas of dried flowers. In the mouth it’s the turn of caramel and very ripe apricot. Surprisingly, freshness prevails over smoothness in this moderately balanced wine. Long finish. Should wait 2-3 years. Score: 88.
Pillitteri icewine 2012, cabernet franc, 11%
Ripe cherries, its smoothness is slightly invasive and completely envelopes the mouth. Soft tannins, sweetness prevails. Score: 85.
Pillitteri icewine 2013, Gewürztraminer/Riesling, 11%
Darkish straw yellow and exuberant flowers in the nose. Freshness prevails over smoothness, a rare occurrence in icewines. It will certainly improve and find its perfect balance in the bottle. Score: 90.
Rancourt icewine 2013, Gewürztraminer, 9.0%
Intense gold yellow, ripe papaya aroma. A smooth wine which keeps enough freshness to guarantee a good balance. Long. Score: 88.
Rancourt icewine 2013 cabernet franc 10.5%
Unique color, copper orange rather than any hue of yellow, resembles caramel. In the nose it’s strawberries and raspberries. Well balanced and long. Score: 90.
|Try Pondview icewine in a chocolate cup|
White flowers, green almonds. Very fresh for an icewine and prominent minerality. Must wait in the cellar. Score: 86.
PondView icewine, Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot, 11%
Melenge bordelais for this intense ruby red icewine. Ripe fruits in the nose and predominant black cherries in the mouth. Twelve months in new French oak provided a pleasant smoothness to the tannins. Good evolution potential in the bottle. Score: 90.
PondView select late harvest, Vidal 2012, 10%
Dark straw yellow, figs and apricots. Well balanced. Easier drink than icewines but lighter on the palate and on the wallet. Easier to pair with a wider range of foods. Score: 88.
|Tasting at Reif|
Light straw yellow. Flowers in the nose, and immediately freshness and minerality emerge with vigor. Yet, the finish is surprisingly smooth, which makes for good balance. Score: 90.
Reif icewine Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, 13%
Dark ruby red, cherries in the nose. Surprisingly strong tannins for an icewine. Hard sensations prevail, but great potential for evolving to a more balanced wine in the bottle. Score: 88.
Reif select late harvest, Vidal 2012, 11,5%
Intense gold yellow. Honey and ripe peaches, apricots. Very complex, well balanced and long. Score: 90.
Delicate garnet color, unusual for an icewine. Gentle aromas of fresh fruits in the nose. Wild red berries and rhubarb, cherries in the mouth. A perfectly balanced result that merits the qualification of a harmonious wine. Score: 94.
Stratus icewine Semillon 2008, 13%
Deep golden yellow, very consistent. Apricot prevails in the nose, round and very long in the mouth. Probably not far from its peak. Score: 93.
Stratus icewine Viognier/Semillon, 2013, 14,3%
Deep straw yellow. Exotic fruits and flowers in the nose. Excellent match of these two varieties, with a slight prevalence (59%) of Viognier. Rich and round in the mouth. Long. Score: 90
A previous version of this article was published in Italian in the magazine Vitae by Associazione Italiana Sommelier in 2016.
Last updated in November 2017